One of the joys of teaching #HealthEd is that it is such a dynamic topic. I don’t think any one year has been the same as another, in fact every semester has been different for me. As society ebbs and flows, health topics become du jour and the media jump on the latest headline grabbing concern and again all eyes look at health teachers. “Surely they should be discussing that in health” as another content area lands in our very full laps. However, as I find myself continually saying to others:
Topics come and go, but the skills that our students require to help them make healthful decisions will remain constant.
And so without any further ado here is this years list – which obviously represents my lens, my biases, and my personal interests. Don’t agree with some of these? Let me know, or tweet your comments and use the hashtag #slowchathealth.
10. Technology, and our relationship with it. From cyber safety, to digital footprints, to being kind online the message when it comes to teens and tech continues to change. I didn’t have access to a cell phone until way into my 20’s and now my own four year old is comfortable taking my phone, unlocking it using the 4 digit code, and searching on YouTube. Our students have had tech in their hands pretty much since birth and it’s time to address their relationship with it. Teachers have embraced technology as best they can but we are seeing an increasing dependence upon, or addiction to devices. Our message has to be when, and how to best use tech. Does being online make our students happy? How are their digital relationships shaping their face-to-face relationships? Is a dependence upon technology affecting other areas of their lives, notably sleep?
If you have seen this short (10 minutes) TED talk, then you’ll love Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. We had a guest speaker present to us at school on the topic of teenagers and appropriate technology use and he highly recommended this accessible read.
9. Sleep. A new entry in our top 10 list but a topic that I think will continue to remain on our list for the foreseeable future. Cutting edge research is showing us just how important sleep is, particularly among growing teenagers. The health benefits are enormous. In my conversations with students regarding sleep (and nutrition and exercise) I focus on how harnessing the benefits allow them to perform to their best wether that be in the classroom, on stage, on a sports field or just in their day to day life. Put simply, tired students are not ready to learn. They can’t process new information, they can’t recall old information, and they can’t focus in class. If they can’t solve their sleep issues then they might as well not be in school. As we start to see more schools experiment with later start times you really should read Why We Sleep; Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker. Dr. Walker dropped some serious knowledge bombs in this podcast and I’m fascinated by learning how to harness the power of sleep for my own benefit.
8. Social Justice and health. Another new entry on our list, and it’s about time. No longer can we teach health to the students in front of us without explaining why and how society is shaping their health. My students are tremendously privileged and in many many ways their health is pre-determined at birth. There are so many great resources discussing the link between race and health that I urge you to check them out. Discussions about race in the classroom can be uncomfortable, and it can be easier for teachers to turn a blind eye and encourage color-blindness. However, there will come a time when your students will need to address the issue of race, and the more these discussions take place, the easier and more effective they will become.
This podcast is a great place for you to start considering social justice and health – Harvard Public Health Podcast: An Invisible Evil. It comes from the excellent weekly podcast from Harvard Chan. In this episode they examine how long-standing institutions and policies affect health disparities—and what can be done to change this. As we strive to encourage our students to become global citizens it is important that they are able to identify disparities between communities and advocate for their eradication. Our students must be comfortable speaking out when they hear facts such as
A black mother in New York City is four times more likely to die during childbirth than a white mother. And nationally the infant mortality rate for non-Latino blacks is more than two* times the rate for white infants.
7. LGBTQ Rights / Gender Identity. With the change in administration since our last list some of the topics on that list need to be in the front of our minds more than others. This is one such topic. It’s also a topic that has the potential to confuse parents in that I very much doubt it was discussed when they were students. I also know that for many of my peers, having a conversation along these lines is discouraged. But look how far we’ve come with this topic. If ever there was proof in the power of advocacy (NHES standard 8) this is it. Transgender restroom access remains such a hot topic even my mom called me to discuss it. Gay marriage rights have changed significantly in the 9 years in which I have taught health. This topic is still relatively new in the health curriculum and there is no doubt that our students are growing up in a more tolerant society than we knew as teens. Look for the outstanding great teaching material from providers such as ETR, GLSEN and Answer as well as continued improved rights for LGBTQ students. Hopefully your school has an advocacy group for these students and their allies within your building. Read the #slowchathealth blog post “Day of Silence” for more resources.
6. Stress/Anxiety. Regular, rigorous high stakes testing, college applications, relationships with friends and family and extra-curricular activities all continue to act as stressors for our students. Teaching students healthy coping strategies and adding those skills to their toolbox is crucial as this is another great example in which our material transcends all areas of our students lives. I wrote in 2016 that “Mindfulness has remained as a buzzword in the media (along with resilience and grit) and looks like it’s here to stay” and in fact it was the subject of the most recent #SHAPEHealthEd twitter chat (find the archive here). As I mentioned above – if students can’t identify and address their stressors then it’s almost pointless teaching them new material. Communication is key. We have to check in with our students, they should be checking in with their peers, and your administration should be leading a whole-school approach to addressing an issue that is feeding into the mental health crises.
5. E-Cigarettes Which wasn’t on our radar when I first started teaching health. Again an example of how the drug of choice will change over time but the skills needed to address the issues will remain the same. My school YRBS shows an increase in ‘vaping’ which comes as no surprise considering the lack of regulation in this industry. Look for this topic to be in the news more frequently as JUUL and other companies come under increasing pressure, notably from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. My school involves parents in discussions of this topic and yoiu can find a link to our resources here. Other resources for you include: Why Vaping Isn’t Healthy for Teens , The Addictive Nature of JUUL E-Cigarettes, CATCH E-Cigarette Prevention and this awesome resource from Stanford Medicine.
4. Sexually Transmitted Infections. The old favorite, that even your student’s parents might remember from their health lessons. However, they too could benefit from instruction in this topic as is evident from parent responses from a survey I send home. I ask ‘how might your child’s health instruction differ from your own?’ and among the responses will often be comments like ‘there weren’t as many STD’s when I was younger’ or even ‘HIV/AIDS didn’t exist when I was younger’. The latest information from the CDC shows that cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are on the increase.
Resistance to antibiotics might be as big of a concern as the increased attacks on the provision of effective sex-education. Fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools are teaching the sexual health topics that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers “essential” for healthy young people. We need to not only teach this topic and teach it well, we must also be allowed to teach our students the necessary skills needed to navigate this area including – analyzing those influencing our sexual behavior decisions, effective communication with future partners, accessing valid sources of information regarding effective birth control and advocating for sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services to all.
3. Consent. Thankfully this topic remains high on our list. The understanding of and the role that consent plays within relationships is key functional knowledge. When I tell parents at parent-teacher conferences that I’m teaching their teen about healthy relationships and understanding consent, you know they realize the importance of our subject area. I’ve blogged about teaching consent in the past and from that post let me share some resources.
The National Sexuality Education Standards document is valuable resource. Created by The Future of Sex Education Initiative (FoSE) the document maps out content and skills appropriate for different stages in school. Consent is effectively introduced in 2nd grade, with sexual consent covered in high school. And that is a crucial point, consent isn’t just about sex. Young kids need to learn that no means no , the value of ‘no‘ and that they have a right to be heard, and protect their bodies.
And while you’re checking out great resources, have you seen Advocates new Rights, Respect, Responsibility free K-12 sex ed curriculum? It includes 80 lesson plans and a 25-page Teacher’s Guide for free.
2. Advocacy. In my early years as a health teacher my aspirational goal was to encourage my students to be advocates. But that was in the era of trying to teach as much content as possible, and in doing so, never really providing my students with the opportunity to develop their advocacy skills. Times have changed, and so has my teaching and now I place my students firmly at the centre of their learning. Armed with YRBS data, and assessed through PBL my students can find a cause about which they are passionate and can advocate for that cause. Some get frustrated that in our short time together they don’t really get to affect much change……that’s when I know I’ve converted them into advocates! It is important, perhaps more so considering the political climate, that we empower our students to use their voices. We need them to believe that that they can call for and affect change. As self-efficacy increases our students will speak up when they see disparity and successfully advocate for others. Increase self-efficacy and students will believe that they can set and achieve their goals in life.
1. Skills-Based Health education, curriculum and assessments. The topic that has been at the top of our list for the past few years now. Since our last list was published Dr Sarah Benes and Dr Holly Alperin have followed up the success of The Essentials of Teaching Health Education with their latest amazing text Lesson Planning for Skills-Based Health Education. Promising “strategies for designing lessons, plus teacher-tested and ready to use unit outlines, assessments, lesson plans, and learning activities” this book doesn’t disappoint.
The emphasis on skills and skill development allows us as health teachers to teach the skills, develop the skills, give students multiple opportunities to practice the skills before assessing the skills. Teaching content alone allows students to know, but in terms of making decisions we are aware that knowing isn’t sufficient to encourage people to do.
Our aim as health educators is not only to allow students to do but to do it well in unfamiliar situations. The content areas on our list above can all be used as the material through which health skills can be developed.
As I wrote earlier, our list will fluctuate and health concerns will change over time, but health skills will remain constant through the lives of our students. This topic is expected to continue to top our Top 10 for the next few years.