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First Care For Then Educate

Peter Senge, in his 1990 book entitled The Fifth Discipline, talked specifically about well-intentionedgoals and aspirations often leading to unpredicted outcomes that even the bestleaders and thinkers could not have anticipated.  Certainly a 1981 government document releasecalled “The Nation at Risk” intended to bring attention to the need foreducation to improve for all kids.  Whatevolved over the years was a tightening of curriculum, the development ofstandards, along with high stakes testing to improve the quality of Americaneducation.  Unfortunately, the unintendedconsequence was the diminishing emphasis on the primary purpose of education(as stated by the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2010) to“first care for and then to educate.” Specifically, NASBE states: “Schools have a duty to help prevent unnecessary injury, disease, andchronic health conditions that can lead to disability or early death” and“…schools take an active role in preventing disabling chronic health conditionsthat cerate misery and consume a burdensome share of the nation’s resources.”

How have we lost sight of what “caring for” students reallymeans?  By focusing solely on academicimprovement, we have neglected the other parts crucial to the care of ourstudents and that those parts are integral to the very academic achievementthat we so desire for our youth.  Moreand more, the need to show academic improvement has become front and center onthe education agenda.  A commonly used routeto accomplishing this has been to increase seat time, decrease recess, andreduce physical education.  No onequestions the validity of this effort because, in many instances, it has led toimproved academic achievement for kids across the country.  However, there has been a cascade ofunintended consequences such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, increased stress,increased ADHD/behavior issues, and lower cognition to name a few.  Although educators continue their efforts toaddress academic achievement, most are not taking into account the growing bodyof research demonstrating the strong correlation between physical activity/fitnessand behavior and cognition as well as health.

What we know about human behavior relative to change isthat, unless there is a compelling reason and a sense of urgency, people shyaway from doing things differently. There are so many pressures on teachers,administrators, and school boards to have their schools perform academically.   Hard science will be necessary before theyrealize that what they are giving up is an important ingredient to the successthey are seeking.  That hard science ishere and expanding.  In a recent book, Physical Activity Across the Lifespan:  Prevention and Treatment for Health andWell-Being by Aleta L. Meyer and Thomas P. Gullotta (2012), one chapter,authored by John Ratey of Harvard Medical School and Jacob Sattelmair ofHarvard School of Public Health, present the research and rationale that shouldinfluence educators about what it means to “care for” and educate ourstudents.  At the core is that 95% of thehuman genome (all of the genes controlling our inherited information) evolvedwhen we were hunters-gathers, and that our genes (especially “thrifty genes”) areencoded for required cycling between periods of activity/rest andfeast/famine.  The sedentary lifestyle andabundance of food that has become prevalent in the last 40 years has disruptedthe healthy gene expression and metabolism manifested in this cycling andresulted in our epidemic of chronic diseases (e.g. obesity, diabetes, heartdisease, cancer) and mental and behavioral disorders (e.g. depression,substance abuse).   Our “thrifty genes”have, in this environment, become a liability instead of an asset.

By denying or diminishing our kids the opportunity to move,we, in essence, don’t provide the environment needed for the brain and body tofunction at optimal levels and can actually set them up for problems.  As Ratey and Sattelmair state from researchdone by Mattson, Maudsley, and Martin in 2004, “The physiological stresspresented to the brain by physical activity balanced with recovery promotesadaptation and growth, preserves brain function, and enables the brain torespond to future challenges.”  The rightlevels of physiological stress from physical activity create the conditionsneeded for our brains to learn and engage in higher-level thinking and problem-solving,as well as give it the resiliency needed to respond to pressure and change(including susceptibility to substance abuse and instant gratification).  That stress is essential for the brain andbody to work most effectively.

The case that movement and physical activity must beincluded in the overall approach to how we educate our students is undeniable.  Educators must understand that we areprogrammed to move– that activity, metabolism, and cognition are geneticallylinked to work together.  Movement has tobe a common denominator in our approach to education and will ultimatelyincrease our chances of reaching our goals of educating students.  There are many opportunities for schools toincorporate physical activity into the school day, and those who are committedto it find a way. Eventually, as educators understand the science of exerciseand the brain, there will be a growing movement to insist that physicalactivity and fitness-based physical education are fundamental to the success ofour schools.


Mattson, M., Maudlsey, S., & Martin, B.  (2004). BCNF and 5HT:  a dynamic duo inage-related neuronal plasticity and neurodegenerative disorders.  Trendsin Neurosciences, 27(10), 589-594.

National Association of State Boards of Education(NASBE).  (2010).  General school health policies.  Retrieved June 12, 2010, from

Ratey, J. and Satetelmair, J. (2012). The mandate formovement:  Schools as agents ofchange.  In A. Meyer & T. Gullotta(Eds), Physical activity across thelifespan: Prevention and treatment for health and well being. (pp.235-265).New York: Springer.

Senge, Peter M. (1990). Thefifth discipline:  The art and practiceof the learning organization.  NewYork: Doubleday/Currency.

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