This is an excerpt from Health and Physical Education for Elementary Classroom Teachers With Web Resource by Retta R. Evans & Sandra Kay Sims.
Classroom Health for Every Day
Teachers know that the best reward for a job well done is a feeling of pride and accomplishment. This feeling is known as intrinsic reward, the internal payoff for accomplishing a goal. An extrinsic reward is something external and tangible given for an accomplishment. The intrinsic reward of satisfaction is worth far more than any extrinsic reward. Incentives are a form of extrinsic reward and may include anything that motivates someone to do something. Giving classroom incentives for individual students and the entire class can be an effective way to encourage positive behavior or celebrate accomplishments. It can be challenging to find incentives for good behavior that are no- or low-cost and healthful. Too many times pizza parties and cupcakes are the go-to incentives, but they send mixed messages to your students about health. Health experts advise that food should not be used as a reward or punishment. Schools should build on a healthy framework. Don’t undo this work by using candy and other nutrition-poor foods as rewards in your classroom. Today’s kids are already overwhelmed with unhealthy food choices. They face high risks of being overweight with chronic health conditions moving into adulthood. They need to be encouraged to make wise choices about food and healthy eating. Giving food as a reward in class causes difficulty and confusion for them. Psychologically, providing food based on performance or behavior connects food to mood. This practice can encourage children to eat when they are not hungry and can instill lifetime habits of rewarding themselves with food behaviors associated with unhealthy eating. Awarding children food during class also reinforces eating outside of meal or snack times.
Another important consideration is to avoid punitive practices connected to exercise, such as having students sit out at recess. This type of punishment prevents students from an important source of physical activity during the school day and from developing social skills. Children need the opportunity to blow off steam and socialize. It is not age appropriate for them to sit at a desk all day. When all students have recess, they have a better chance of being focused, better behaved, and ready to learn afterward. In fact, exercise is good for you, too. Grab a hula hoop or a ball, and join in as you model that exercise is fun.
As a teacher, it makes sense to follow health and physical education standards in instruction to help students attain related skills. However, make sure the classroom environment is conducive to health and wellness. Do not be hypocritical by giving out candy or junk food as classroom rewards or punish students by having them sit out of recess. Fortunately, effective and healthy ways exist to encourage positive behavior while setting an appropriate example of wellness. The following are ways to incentivize students for behavior, effort, and accomplishments that support health and wellness and foster connectedness in the classroom and school.
- Smile: Treat each student with respect and kindness by making eye contact and smiling warmly. This gesture is a simple way to let your approval shine.
- Friendly gesture: A quick high five, pat on the back, thumbs-up, or handshake can go a long way in validating a student’s efforts.
- Spoken praise: Identify a few students each class period, and find ways to individually praise something they did well. By the end of the week, every student in your class will have been praised. Remember to focus on the specific deed or achievement rather than on a general trait about the person. For example, instead of saying, "Katie, you are so smart," point out an accomplishment, saying, "Katie, give yourself a pat on the back for an awesome 19 out of 20 on your addition test!" Be available before and after school in case a student needs help or simply needs to talk to you. Praise students for good work as well as effort in completing tasks and assignments. You never know when your words of praise and encouragement will be the only ones a student hears all day.
- Written praise: Students thrive on a quick note to affirm positive behavior or accomplishments. It takes only a minute or two to jot a few warm words such as "Thank you, Kyle, for helping me sharpen pencils this morning. I felt rushed after my meeting ran late, and you were right there to help. I am lucky to have you in my class!" Keep a cheery notepad on your desk to remind you to find opportunities to build your students’ confidence through the written word each day. In addition, on parent night, give parents index cards and pens to leave a written note of encouragement in their child’s desk for them to find the next day.
- Public announcements: Recognizing a child’s achievement on the schoolwide morning announcements is effective. A photo recognition board in a prominent location in the school is another way to publicly acknowledge a job well done.
- Home communication: Try calling, e-mailing, or sending a note to parents or guardians commending accomplishment. This incentive also reinforces the importance of health and wellness at home.
- Class chant or cheer: When students reach goals (such as reading a certain number of books or learning their 7s multiplication tables) give a class "Hip-hip hooray" or sing "For He’s (or She’s) a Jolly Good Fellow." The student being recognized can take a lap jogging around the classroom and slapping five with classmates during the cheer. When combined with sign language or clapping to a beat, this recognition is also a great way to incorporate physical activity into the classroom.
- Assembly: Every Friday have a class assembly during which each student gets to tell what she or he is most proud of that week; then the class applauds, snaps, gives a thumbs-up, or shows other signs of approval. It takes only a couple of seconds for each child, and it also gives them practice with speaking in front of a group.
- Become a helper to the custodian, librarian, another teacher, or the office staff.
- Have lunch with a favorite person, fellow student (even one in another class or grade), principal, or teacher.
- Have an additional physical education period with another class. (Partner up with another teacher for this one.)
- Listen to the radio or a CD with headphones for a specified period of time.
- Be the leader for the first activity in gym class.
- Get an extra recess.
- Have additional computer time.
- Go on a field trip.
- Bring a special guest or buddy. Students may invite someone to visit the classroom, read a book, or give show and tell. This person may be anyone - a grandparent, older sibling, principal, or even the mayor.
- Pens, erasers, notepads or notebooks
- Stencils, stamps
- Highlighters, chalk (or sidewalk chalk), markers
- Puzzles, brain teasers, crossword puzzles
- Paddleball, flying disc, spongy ball
- Water bottle
- Hula hoop, jump rope
Each day at lunchtime you have a wonderful opportunity to reinforce healthy habits with your students. Start by washing hands. Next, read the menu or have a student read the menu. Talk about the types of foods offered. Encourage your students to eat or sample their fruits and vegetables. You may want to give out inexpensive green stickers (the small round ones that are used for garage sales) to students who try the fruits and vegetables offered at lunch each day.
Lunchtime is also a great time for students to practice social skills and manners. Teach them how to make polite conversation using an appropriate volume, not to talk with their mouths full, how to use a napkin, and how to clean off their spot at the table when they are finished. Be clear about your expectations, and help students make strides socially. Make these rules clear at the beginning of the school year, and reinforce them with signage in the classroom that you reinforce with them periodically.
Remember that children are impressionable and imitate the adults around them. Like it or not, your students are influenced by your food and drink choices during the day. Are you eating cake left over in the teachers’ lounge or drinking a couple of sodas each day in class? Do you drink water or eat an apple every day for a snack? Your students are taking note. When you are eating or drinking something healthy, point it out to them. You might be surprised by the results.
Finally, lunchtime is not a time for punishment. Isolation or having a silent lunch (where talking is not allowed) is not appropriate. On the contrary, this meal is an important socialization opportunity for children and a component of overall health.
Water and Bathroom Breaks
Only a few elementary classrooms are equipped with their own sink, water fountain, and toilet. You need to plan ahead of time for your students to meet their handwashing, hydration, and bathroom needs during the school day.
Water is essential to survival. The amount of water that elementary-aged children need each day varies from 1 to 3 liters. Children spend a large portion of their waking hours in the classroom. It is vital that they have access to water regularly. This is especially important after physical education or recess. Unfortunately, in the interest of time some teachers skip water breaks during the day or limit each child to one or two sips at the water fountain. This is not enough water for students to maintain optimal health and may lead to dehydration, fatigue, and illness. Encourage your students to bring a reusable water bottle from home so that they may drink water throughout the day. Remind your students to take the water bottles home and wash them daily. It is not safe to reuse empty bottled-water bottles. Put reusable water bottles on your classroom supply list at the beginning of the year to get your students off to a great start. Check school and district policy for approval.
Allow your students to use the restroom when they feel the need. It will be several times a day, especially if they are drinking enough water. Using the restroom is an essential bodily function that should not be ignored. It is not a privilege, and access should never be taken away as a punishment. Health consequences of delaying restroom needs could lead to urinary tract infections or impacted bowels. Also, be sensitive that some girls as young as third grade may already have begun menstruation.
Celebrations and special occasions can be opportunities for teachers to create a healthy classroom. Holidays and birthdays may be some of the biggest challenges to healthy eating. Experts strongly encourage schools to offer healthy food choices at classroom parties. It is best to provide written rules at the beginning of the school year concerning your policy about outside food. It could be that your school or district has already established a related policy. If not, clearly communicate that birthdays should be celebrated outside of class and that only healthy snacks and drinks will be allowed for class parties or holiday celebrations (e.g., no cupcakes or soda). Discuss this topic throughout the year with your room parent, especially when the holidays and the end of the school year are approaching. Be prepared that even with the best intentions, some well-meaning but uninformed parent may randomly show up at your class with a box of donuts at snack time. It happens. Be gracious, but stick to your resolve. You are there to be an advocate for your students’ health. For healthy alternatives during in-class celebrations, rewards, fundraising, and snacks, check out www.tpchd.org/files/library/3379ffef0bb808ad.pdf.
More Ideas for Classroom Celebrations
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to children’s health. Their goal is to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity and to empower kids to develop lifelong, healthy habits. Go to www.healthiergeneration.org to find out more. Also, check out their ideas for healthy celebrating in schools at www.healthiergeneration.org/_asset/nvgd8g/13-6162_HSPHealthyCelebration.pdf.
Field trips can be a fun way to reinforce academic and health concepts. Similar to celebrations, parents and caregivers should be encouraged to pack a healthy lunch or snack if one is needed for the trip; send them reminders before the field trip. If a venue is providing the food during the field trip, check well in advance to make sure that healthy food and drink offerings are served and that allergy needs are addressed.
Field trips also provide an important opportunity to talk about safety. You are responsible for your students’ safety at all times. Students should know their full names, phone numbers, and addresses before going on a class trip. Young students may require nametags or writing emergency contact information directly on their forearms with a permanent marker. Be sure to buckle up during transport. Remind students to stick with a buddy, and make sure that they have plenty of chaperones. If you plan to be outdoors, have students wear hats and sunscreen and have a plan to keep everyone hydrated on a hot day.
Once you have established a daily routine that is conducive to health, take a look at the school year. Many elementary teachers have monthly themes that are seasonal or related to holidays. Consider how you can keep health at the forefront of your classroom throughout the year.
Learn more about Health and Physical Education for Elementary Classroom Teachers.