Special Report
Student Well-Being

Why Lunch, Exercise, Sleep, and Air Quality Matter at School

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 12, 2019 17 min read
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From technology to textbooks to teacher training, school planning often has a lot of competing priorities. Some things—like the morning schedule, lunch and activity time, or the building’s physical environment—by their very banality often fall to the bottom of that priority list.

Yet evidence is mounting that attending to these basic aspects of students’ school experiences can significantly improve their academic focus, concentration, and mental well-being. And often the challenges to making changes in school structures seem insurmountable. But many schools are coming up with creative solutions.

In Seattle, for example, “it took years” to convince the district to delay high school start times to give adolescents more sleep, according to teacher Cynthia Jatul. “When we first started bringing it up to the school board, they said that they had tried and had never been able to fully implement the policy because there are so many factors that surround school start time, and a lot of those things are difficult to change. So even though it was known that it would be much better, nothing was done.”

Yet switching the bus schedule to pick up elementary students before high schoolers ultimately reduced stress at both levels, as older students got more rest and parents of younger children were able to get to work earlier.

The following stories highlight four issues that often get short shrift in school planning, and the schools and districts that are working to improve them:

Jump to a Section: Meal Time | Exercise | Clean Air | Sleep

Meal Time

On paper, 20 minutes is enough time to eat. In practice, Betti Wiggins knows it’s nowhere near enough time for lunch.

“If you make it to the cafeteria in under 5 minutes, the line can be anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how many kids are in that class,” said Wiggins, the Houston school district’s officer of nutrition services. “Do you have 15 leisurely minutes to eat? No. If you are the first kid in line, you’re lucky. If you are in the last 15, God help you—the last kid generally has four to five minutes to eat.”

Even as the average school lunch has gotten healthier under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the overflowing waste bins in many cafeterias suggest students often don’t eat it. Researchers and educators argue that constrained and off-schedule lunch periods throw off students’ appetites, leave them crankier and less focused in class, and prevent them from practicing normal social manners.

A 2017 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics compared 1,000 4th and 5th-grade students with the earliest, latest, and midday lunch periods. In an eight-week analysis of more than 20,000 lunch trays, Juliana Cohen, a nutrition researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health, and her colleagues found that students who had lunch periods near noon ate 6 percent more of their food than students who had early lunch periods, and 14 percent more food than students with late lunches. Students who had at least 25 minutes to eat from the time they sat down finished significantly more of their entrees, vegetables, and milk than did students who had less than 20 minutes to eat.

Besides wasting less food, Cohen has found in other studies that better lunch schedules could give students an academic boost.

“Our research and the research of others also show that there likely is a connection between healthier foods and academic performance,” Cohen said. “The kind of upper-level cognitive functioning that you associate with in school—impulse control, memory—those are all associated with healthier diet. Increasingly, we’ve seen schools reduce the amount of time kids have for lunch to focus on academics, and they don’t realize that could actually be impacting the kids’ academics adversely.”

Lunch also provides a space for social and emotional education, said Marcus Weaver-Hightower, an education, health, and behavior researcher at the University of North Dakota.

“Principals often have a very instrumentalist view of lunch; they have to get some calories in kids to keep them going, but they are ... keeping lunch as short and regimented as possible,” Weaver-Hightower said. “But school lunch is probably the most universal experience of school that we have. ... How are we building the kind of social values that come from eating a meal together?”

In Texas, Wiggins is testing one way to create a “more humane” lunch: keeping it in the classroom.

Since last year, the Garden Oaks Montessori Elementary School has piloted “family style” lunch service in which teachers and paraprofessionals of preschool, kindergarten, and 1st-graders eat with their students in their classrooms. Cutting out the cafeteria commute allowed younger students 30 minutes to eat, and allowed administrators to shift their lunch period from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

Before the shift, “we would eat breakfast, then turn around and eat lunch,” said Terah Kuknen, a teacher for a class for 4- to 6-year-olds. “We would have snacks in the afternoon, but even as a teacher, I would come home starved.”

Kuknen initially was skeptical of whether her students would be able to take on more responsibility during lunch time. Two months in, she was won over. Students set their own tables with real plates, cloth napkins, and flatware, and then washed their own dishes afterward. They developed better table manners and were calmer after lunch.

“At the cafeteria, I think they would get stressed: It’s loud, they couldn’t hear their friends, and they felt rushed to get out the door. The next class after lunch felt chaotic,” Kuknen said. “But this year, they’re building the community, they’re helping one another out, serving each other ... and having more time. I just sit and relax, and the chat is really beneficial to them.”

Removing the younger grades has also eased pressure on the grades that still use the lunchroom. Wiggins plans to expand the pilot to other schools in the district. While family-style service does require more supervision from teachers and cafeteria staff, it costs the same in food and preparation, and has led to less waste, Wiggins said.

“I would tell academic administrators, as they look at how to educate the whole child, consider [that] one of the ways you educate him is you give him a humane lunch period and you treat him like a human being while he’s there,” she said.


When teachers arrive each morning at Clearview Elementary, the last thing they want to see is students sitting still, eyes forward.

They want to see kids move.

For the last year, students in every grade have had to run or walk at least a mile, rain or shine, before the first class each day. “If it is above zero, we are outside, and below zero we walk the halls inside,” said Principal Sheri Rutar. “We notice a real difference. Students are ready mentally and physically when they come in from Morning Mile.”

As traditional recess and physical education time get increasingly squeezed, schools like Clearview in Clear Lake, Minn. are trying to find ways to bring physical activity back into the school day. And research suggests getting students moving for an extra 15 minutes here and there can do more to boost their academic achievement than trying to cram in more academic seat time.

“We are so used to telling students: ‘Sit in your desk, be quiet, be still, pay attention.’ That goes totally against how kids learn,” said Brad Johnson, a 15-year science teacher in Georgia and author of Learning on Your Feet. “A classroom should sound more like a construction site than a museum.”

Federal health guidelines say children and adolescents ages 6 and older get at least 60 minutes of “vigorous” exercise each day. But a 2017 study found fewer than 1 in 3 U.S. students meets that standard each week, and the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last three decades.

Moreover, evidence is growing on the connection between more-sedentary students and less academic engagement, too. A 2018 analysis of nearly 60 studies found higher physical activity was associated with better self-control, memory, and focus.

“This effect is especially noticeable after the third hour of classroom lessons; the time at which processes related to attention and focus on a given task tend to deteriorate,” the researchers noted in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “Students who regularly do sports are also calmer during lessons.”

Yet activity time often falls to other school priorities. Nationwide, recess ranges from 15 to 45 minutes daily, and some schools have eliminated it. Likewise, the nonprofit Voices for Healthy Kids Action Center reported that only 4 percent of elementary, 8 percent of middle, and 2 percent of high schools have daily physical education throughout the school year, and half of students take no physical education in high school at all.

Some states have tried to carve out more time for physical activity. In the last five years, Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia have all required schools to provide recess. And a group of Florida parents recently won a three-year fight to require recess at the state level.

Yet Mark Benden, the director of the Ergonomics Center at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, who studies the effects of school and work environments on obesity and cognition, believes that incorporating formal play or exercise time isn’t enough.

“Children need to have more built-in movement throughout the day—not just recess or even P.E., but getting up and moving around, wiggling, wobbling, fidgeting,” Benden said. “All those small acts of daily activity that 100 years ago, people just had as a function of life. We’ve got to find new ways to build movements back in, because we are dynamic creatures.”

In studies of students’ brain activity, academic engagement, and health, Benden and his colleagues have found students benefit from so-called “activity-permissive learning environments,” such as rooms with standing desks and bouncing seats to encourage students to change position, or classroom rules that allow students to pace while thinking. Students in more-active classrooms expended more calories over time, he found, and they also showed more academic engagement and progress. “We can tell teachers, ‘Look, we’re not asking you to have chaos in your classroom for no reason,’ ” he said. “There’s a lot of emerging evidence of cognitive benefits [of activity], and I do believe the pendulum is swinging back.”

Johnson agreed. As a high school science teacher, he often let students who felt fidgety do push-ups or sit-ups at the back of the classroom for a few minutes.

“Of course the first time or two, it was a little bit distracting to the class, but it became the norm and no one would even pay attention any more,” he said. “And once the students did a few push-ups or planks, they would come back to their desks and be fine for the rest of the class.”

Within the classroom, Johnson argued most lessons can be adapted to be more active, such as asking students to measure objects in the class or hallway to create math problems rather than using worksheets. And Johnson now works with schools to implement physical activity breaks with students for 15 minutes of every hour, a model used widely in some Scandinavian countries and now being tested in some Georgia and Texas schools.

Back at Clearview, Principal Rutar said she and the staff decided to implement the Morning Mile to compensate for not having daily physical education periods. Parents now often join their children for the daily 15-minute walk or run. Students track their miles and compete to beat their own walking records; the two students who walk the most miles each year win new tennis shoes courtesy of a community donor.

Vaughn Blair, a 3rd grader, has beaten the personal record several times and said it’s become a “necessary thing.”

“It feels really good for my body,” Blair said. “If I couldn’t do the morning mile, I would probably get a little angry, because I love running.”

Clean Air

We tell children who are struggling with a problem to slow down and take a deep breath. But in nearly half of U.S. schools, poor air quality may make that hurt more than help.

According to Environmental Protection Agency statistics, nearly half of schools have unhealthy levels of pollutants, pollen, dust, and other contaminants that research suggests can contribute to chronic illnesses and lower academic achievement over time.

On many campuses, particularly those with older buildings, keeping fresh air circulating raises schools’ energy costs, because outside air must be heated or cooled to maintain a steady temperature.

“The problem is that if you don’t turn that air over, you start reducing the oxygen levels, increasing carbon dioxide levels, and not flushing out things like carpet fibers and paint,” said Mark Benden, a researcher at Texas A&M University who studies the effects of architectural structures on learning. “So if you’re worried more about the cost of the bill than the quality of the air, you can get to a point where you’re impacting cognition.”

In one study, the University of Tulsa’s Indoor Air Program tracked air quality in 140 5th grade classes at 70 schools in the winter and spring months leading up annual state tests. Researchers found that students in classes below the minimum-required air ventilation performed 74 points lower on average on a 2,400-point test than students in rooms with better air quality.

In Florida, Gove Elementary is making a virtue of necessity. The school serves a high-poverty migrant community in Belle Glade, and for most of the year it has easy proof of its air-quality challenge: the smell of smoke.

“We are a farming community, so we have a lot of cane burning, sugar mills, planes flying over with fertilizers,” said Ellen Smith, a 32-year veteran Gove teacher and Belle Glade native. “Once, accidentally, a plane went over and fertilized our school. Oh my stars. It was a nightmare.”

School nurse Erika Alonso estimates more than 80 of the school’s 750 students have chronic, severe asthma, aggravated by six months of burning in the sugarcane fields that surround the school.

In spite of that, Gove has been recognized as an Asthma-Friendly School by the American Lung Association. The school provides ongoing training for teachers and students on how to reduce allergens in the school and respond to students having respiratory trouble. Gardens and green spaces growing around the campus are meant to improve the air around the buildings.

At Lanier High School in Buford, Ga., north of Atlanta, student lessons have spurred the school to improve its air quality.

Each year, the high school’s biology students conduct ozone and air particulate testing throughout the campus and compare the results to average air quality findings published by the county to find air quality “hot spots,” according to Christy Battle, Lanier’s biology head teacher.

Three years ago, as a result of the student testing, Battle’s Advanced Placement Biology class teamed up with the nonprofit Commuter Options Georgia to launch a campaign to improve carpooling and reduce bus idling during morning and afternoon school periods. They used the air quality data they had collected to convince Principal Christopher Martin to provide two new teacher carpool spaces and four carpool spaces for students.

“These kids are our future,” Battle said. “They need to start thinking about how clean air affects them and the community around them.”


From elementary to high school, students make the trade-off: Give up an hour or two of sleep for homework or an extra study session.

School structures often encourage this sort of trade—but it’s a bad one, experts say, for students’ long-term memory, grades, and mental health.

The National Sleep Foundation estimates more than 2 out of 3 secondary school students do not get the recommended nine hours of sleep a night. And in a 2014 poll by the nonprofit advocacy group, a third of parents reported their high school age students slept in class, while nearly 1 in 5 parents reported their middle-school age children had fallen asleep in school.

“Sleep and schedules are a huge thing that’s often overlooked by schools and families, too,” said Cari Gillen-O’Neel, a sleep researcher and psychologist at Macalester College, in Saint Paul, Minn. “Academic rigor can end up getting expressed as a culture of work, work, work, where it’s almost a point of pride how little sleep you get. So students stay awake because they want to do well ... but our data suggests counterintuitively that it can cause even more problems.”

While the average weekly homework for K-8 students has stayed roughly flat in the last decade, at 4.7 hours, the U.S. Department of Education estimates high school students’ homework load has risen from 6.8 hours a week in 2007 to 7.5 hours a week in 2016, the most recent year available.

That increased workload in high school, in particular, comes at the same time students’ social calendars are filling and their bodies are shifting to a new sleep rhythm.

“Student bedtimes are really dictated by their circadian clock,” said Gideon Dunster, a biology doctoral researcher at the University of Washington. He added that this biological sleep-wake cycle starts naturally later for adolescents than for both children and adults, and that the use of technology like phones and laptops that emit blue light can further delay students’ circadian rhythm by mimicking bright morning sunlight.

Cynthia Jatul, a high school biology teacher in Seattle, pushed the district to delay start times for secondary students. “As a teacher, a parent, and a former nurse-practitioner, I’m very, very aware of all the problems associated with sleep deprivation,” Jatul said. “Unfortunately this generation has so many influences now to keep them up.”

And the burden of less sleep tended to fall hardest on low-income students, who were more likely to have family responsibilities and more complicated commutes in the morning, Jatul said. “It becomes a social justice issue because we have kids that have to get up even earlier because ... they have to take the city bus and it takes them longer to get to school.”

When Seattle public schools pushed high school start times back by 55 minutes, Dunster and fellow researchers at the University of Washington tracked how students spent that extra time. They found students did not stay up later on school nights than before, but did stay asleep longer in the morning. The schedule change led to more sleep and better academic performance across all students in the schools they studied, but high-poverty high schools also saw a significant decline in students arriving late or not at all. “Absenteeism dropped to levels that looked almost similar to the ones in our higher-socioeconomic school,” Dunster said.

Yet even after the delay, Seattle teenagers still get less sleep on school nights and have a bigger gap between weekday and weekend sleep than experts recommend.

In one study, Gillen-O’Neel asked 9th graders to keep a checklist of all their daily activities—how much they studied, what extracurricular and social activities they did, how much they slept—for two weeks a year, and repeated the process in 10th and 12th grades. She compared information about students’ daily activities to their reports on having trouble getting to class, understanding lessons, or struggling with tests or assignments during the same periods. The researchers found that regardless how many hours a teenager usually slept, whenever they spent less time sleeping on a given night, the next day they had more academic problems, more confusion, and more depressed moods.

“We realized their study time was coming out of their sleep time,” she said. “Teenagers can need up to nine or 10 hours [of sleep] a night, and some of them are getting maybe five or six. They were really compromising their long-term brain function.”

Jatul created training for teachers on how to talk to their students about the importance of sleep and balancing their workload.

The sleep training has not been implemented widely in the district, but there’s evidence such programs can be helpful. A 2016 study in the journal Sleep Medicine found that elementary students who took part in a short course on sleep health slept more than 18 minutes longer per night than peers who had not participated, and their math and reading report card grades improved, while those of the control group did not during the same time. A separate earlier study found similar effects in high school students.

“It’s really beneficial to help students understand that as adolescents, they still need eight to nine hours of sleep for their bodies and minds to develop,” Jatul said. “We need to look at their workload, and the hyper-achievement pressure to take as many [Advanced Placement] courses as possible,” she said. “As adults we need to make sure they get as much sleep as possible.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as How School Lunch, Bedtime Can Shape Student Success


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