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Winston Churchill famously said that “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage also is what it takes to sit down and listen.” At the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, we believe that it will take courage from concerned citizens, local leaders and elected officials to achieve our mission of addressing the unmet health care needs of Kentuckians. And we believe that before we can “stand up and speak,” we first need to listen to the views of the people around us.
Recently, foundation representatives traveled around the commonwealth, asking the public what we should do next to advance our mission. This listening tour became the cornerstone of our new strategic plan and will shape our work for the next five years.
Overwhelmingly, people across the state told us we needed to work with kids. Regardless of whether they had young children or grandchildren, Kentuckians viewed the health of the next generation as the highest priority.
We listened. And now we are launching a new strategic initiative at the foundation called Investing in Kentucky’s Future.
In coming years, we will dedicate significant resources to help Kentucky communities adopt innovative strategies to keep kids healthy, to share skills and build capacity in local coalitions to address health risks, and to inform local leaders about policies that impact the health of children. But we’re not through listening.
Children are influenced by their schools, their communities, their peers and most importantly their parents. If you want to understand children’s needs, you need to consider these diverse influences. If you want to improve children’s health, you need to listen to the real experts: moms and dads. The Kentucky Parent Survey was an effort to sit down and listen to what moms and dads had to say.
This summer, more than 1,000 parents and guardians of children younger than 18 were interviewed by telephone as part of the first-ever Kentucky Parent Survey, which was funded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. The Kentucky Parent Survey assessed the views of parents, step parents, grandparents, foster parents and other legal guardians about health issues that impact children in our state. The interviews were conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia, where researchers carefully reviewed the data to ensure that it was an accurate reflection of the views of all Kentuckians.
This past week, we released the first results from the Kentucky Parent Survey to the public, which focused on school policies and practices.
Next to their homes, school is where children spend most of their time, and health and school performance are closely linked. Healthy children are better able to focus on their studies and learn at school. In turn, research shows that academic success can help children maintain their health into adulthood.
So if you are going to address children’s health, you have to talk about schools. It is particularly important to consider school policies and practices relating to nutrition, physical activity and health education.
According to the most recent data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, more than 1 in 3 Kentucky children (37 percent) are obese. Eating healthy foods and being more physically active are critical behaviors for curbing Kentucky’s obesity epidemic. Even for children at a healthy body weight, the exercise and nutrition habits they form during their school years will impact their ability to maintain a healthy weight into adulthood.
Despite the importance of healthy eating, on the Kentucky Parent Survey, fewer than 1 in 4 parents (23 percent) described the meals served at their child’s school as being “very nutritious.” The majority of parents (62 percent) hedged, saying the food at their child’s school was only “somewhat nutritious.”
When we asked about physical activity, there seemed to be more missed opportunities. Most parents reported that their child was enrolled in a physical education class at school. However, most kids don’t take P.E. every day: just one in three parents (35 percent) reported their child attended daily P.E. class.
Outside of instructional time, walking or biking to school is another opportunity for children to be more active, yet fewer than one in 10 parents (7 percent) said that their child ever walked or biked to school.
Beyond forming habits to be physically active and eat healthy foods, schools can impact children in the classroom through their health education curriculum.
Just as children need to learn to read and write, kids need to learn about being and staying healthy. One facet of health education is reproductive health, or sex education. Kentucky schools are legally required to teach some form of sex education and to teach kids about HIV. Schools are required to cover abstinence and the Kentucky Department of Education encourages schools to evaluate their curriculum against National Health Education Standards, but otherwise schools have some latitude about how and when sex education is covered.
The Kentucky Parent Survey asked parents what they thought their kids should learn at school and when they should learn it. In general, parental support was stronger for covering sex education subjects in high school.
More than 3 in 4 parents favor teaching high school students about communication skills (99 percent), HIV and sexually transmitted infections (97 percent), human anatomy (97 percent), abstinence education (94 percent), birth control methods (87 percent), condom use (84 percent), and gender and sexual orientation issues (75 percent).
While support was somewhat lower, the majority of parents also supported covering each of these subjects with middle school students. Most Kentucky parents seem to support a comprehensive approach to health education for their children.
While schools are critically important to the health of our children, this is not all we heard from parents. Later this year, additional reports from the Kentucky Parent Survey will address access to safe and effective health care for children, children’s health behaviors and family routines, and the places where parents turn for information on raising healthy and happy kids.
The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is committed to repeating the Kentucky Parent Survey in the future in order to track changing views and learn what parents may think about emerging health issues.
This is only the beginning of our conversation. We are grateful that Kentucky parents had the courage to tell us what matters to them. Now, we owe it to them to have the courage to “sit down and listen.”
Susan Zepeda, Ph.D, is president and CEO of the non-profit Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. She can be reached at (502) 326-2583 or email@example.com.