School health screenings in Tennessee are helping to improve student health and promote better learning.
Since 2007, state funding for coordinated school health has made health screenings possible every year for over 1 million students in Tennessee’s public schools. In 2008, the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of Coordinated School health developed systematic guidelines to conduct school health screenings that help school staff: (1) quickly identify barriers to student learning, and (2) alert parents when students need follow-up medical care. With input from the state’s Medicaid agency, the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, and the Southern College of Optometry, the Tennessee School Health Screening Guidelines are a model for local education agencies to identify the health needs of their students and improve opportunities for academic achievement.
Funding for coordinated school health enabled the hiring of more staff and increased the state’s capacity to conduct more student health screenings for vision and hearing, blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI). At the onset of the screenings, there were students identified with these health conditions who received prompt follow-up treatment from healthcare specialists. Because of the expert medical care given, the students’ overall health improved, as well as classroom behavior, vision, and physical endurance.
Coordinated School Health staff in Tennessee continue to meet the needs of students throughout the state. Local health departments and several community stakeholders assist in providing screenings in many school districts for all students in pre-K, kindergarten, 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th grades, and 1 year of high school. Coordinated School Health staff provide internal training and trained volunteers at the local level to get accurate and reliable results from student screenings and to minimize the potential for stigma. Staff are trained to maintain student privacy and confidentiality during screenings and use and maintain equipment properly. Another training objective is to teach staff how to use appropriate and sensitive communication with students regarding height and weight measurement. For example, using statements such as, “Let’s check your weight.” instead of, “Let’s see how big you are.” In addition, staff are taught to reassure students that kids’ bodies come in different sizes and shapes, and avoid labels such as “obese”, “overweight”, “too thin”, or “too short.”
During the 2016-2017 school year, 1,426,367 children and adolescents were screened in Tennessee public schools. Because of this statewide school health initiative, obesity and other health concerns were identified early through regular school health screenings. The prevalence of overweight and obesity declined from 41.1% during 2007-2008 to 39.2% during 2016-2017. In addition, absenteeism due to student illness declined as well. Tennessee’s Office of Coordinated School Health continues to work with parents and guardians to refer students to needed health care, so health and academic issues do not develop into serious problems. Another important aspect is that families are connected to community resources, as needed, to assist in the delivery of health services.