Today’s guest post comes from senior attorney Alexis Etow and policy analyst Cesar De La Vega at ChangeLab Solutions, a public health-oriented law and policy organization. 

This week is American Education Week, which for the past 98 years has elevated the importance of education and acknowledged the individuals — parents, caregivers, educators, school leaders, education support professionals and others — who are crucial to ensuring that every child receives a quality education.

Honoring these important individuals provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the ways that we, the public health community, can provide support as engaged stakeholders and partners to ensure that all children reach their full educational potential.

From a public health perspective, we know that education is a key social determinant of health — a major factor in economic stability, chronic disease prevention and even life expectancy. Yet for many children, a quality education is nearly impossible to achieve.

Due to unfair and inequitable laws, policies and practices at federal, state and local levels, disparities in opportunity persist among children from communities that are systemically oppressed. School discipline procedures for preschool and K-12 students are just one example of the ways in which unjust legal and policy tools deprive children of a critical social determinant of health: their education.

Many schools deliver harsh, predetermined punishments that disproportionately impact the same students who experience high rates of childhood adversity and trauma — specifically, children of color, children with disabilities and children who identify as LGBTQ.

School staff who misinterpret or do not recognize children’s symptoms of trauma and respond punitively by suspending, expelling or referring children to law enforcement can compound stress.

Symptoms of trauma can include anger, aggression, dissociation, hyperactivity or an inability to focus. A punitive response to these can open the door to myriad individual and schoolwide harms, including social isolation, decreased feelings of safety, chronic absenteeism, low academic performance and increased risk of dropout.

Punitive practices also undermine critical protective factors, such as school connectedness and caring relationships with peers and adults, which help shield children from the impacts of childhood adversity and toxic stress.

Given these far-reaching health impacts:

  • The public health and health care communities are critical partners in developing school-based policy and practice solutions. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics took an important step earlier this year with its policy statement that unpacks the negative impacts of racism on children and young people’s healthy development. It outlines ways that pediatricians and health professionals can proactively engage with schools to promote educational equity
  • Public health advocates and lawyers can — and must — play an important role in tackling the structural drivers of inequities. They can use social determinants of health to craft arguments that advance equitable education and health outcomes.
  • The public health sector can work with state and local education leaders to communicate the impacts of school-based laws and policies on children’s health and education outcomes. Emphasizing the connection between academic achievement and health can help align priorities and blend and braid funding.
  • Public health partners can use recent advances in science to inform evidence-based policy and practice solutions that can support students, teachers and the larger school community.

Support and formal recognition from the public health and medical communities acknowledging that school discipline policies — and education policy, more broadly — are public health priorities is critical to reducing disparities in opportunity, increasing protective factors and reversing the harmful and long-term effects of childhood adversity.

In honor of American Education Week, let us, as public health advocates, health care providers and community stakeholders, commit to supporting leaders on the front lines in schools to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn, heal and thrive.

To learn more about the connections between early childhood brain development, childhood adversity and punitive school discipline practices — or to explore further opportunities to support local leaders — see ChangeLab Solutions’ school discipline issue brief or contact us.

Get more insights on health and well-being in schools from APHA’s Center for School, Health and Education.