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What a health education curriculum should look like

This is an excerpt from Promoting Health and Academic Success eBook by David A. Birch & Donna M. Videto.

Health Education

Comprehensive school health education is characterized by planned, sequential, developmentally appropriate, and culturally inclusive learning experiences taught by qualified trained teachers. The health education curriculum should be based on relevant health behavior theories; focus on the emotional, intellectual, physical, and social dimensions of health; provide students with exposure to diverse instructional techniques; and evaluate student achievement through a variety of assessment strategies (Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards [JCNHES], 2007). The learning experiences embedded within the curriculum should be designed to help students acquire functional health information; identify personal values that support healthy behaviors; recognize group norms that relate to a healthy lifestyle; and develop skills necessary to adopt, practice, and maintain health-enhancing behaviors (CDC, 2013a; JCNHES, 2007). Although many leaders in health and education suggest a linkage between quality health education and academic achievement, and some research verifies this linkage, many schools in the United States struggle to provide quality health education instruction (CDC, 2013b; JCNHES, 2007). Possible positive consequences of this linkage include a decrease in student absenteeism, higher academic achievement, and an increase in graduation rates (Allensworth, 2011; Basch, 2011a, 2011b; Freudenberg & Ruglis, 2007).


Healthy People 2020 includes an objective to increase the proportion of elementary, middle, and senior high schools that provide comprehensive school health education (USDHHS, 2013). Nationwide, 41.2 percent of elementary schools, 58.7 percent of middle schools, and 78.7 percent of high schools had specific time requirements for school health instruction (CDC, 2013b).


Thesecond edition of The National Health Education Standards (figure 3.1) was released in 2007. The standards were developed by a panel of health education leaders with input from professionals in both health and education, as well as parents and community members. The standards are not federally mandated or designed to define a national curriculum. Instead, they are intended to provide a framework and resource for the development of state standards and health education curricula in local school districts (American Cancer Society, 2007). The standardsinclude three distinct components: the individual health education standards, a rationale statement for each standard, and performance indicators linked to each standard for mastery by the completion of grades 4, 8, and 11 (American Cancer Society, 2007).


The standards can be applied to various health education content areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2011a) has identified six risk behaviors as being important focal points for instruction in school health education. These behaviors include alcohol and other drug use, physical inactivity, sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, tobacco use, unhealthy dietary behaviors, and behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence. Other possible content areas for instruction include environmental health, human sexuality, and mental and emotional health (CDC, 2013a).


Beyond the National Health Education Standards, quality school health education should be based on quality health instruction. The following best practices have been identified by the CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health. They are based on reviews of effective programs and curricula and the positions of experts in the profession of health education (CDC, 2013d).

  • Focus on clear health goals and related behavioral outcomes
  • Are research-based and theory-driven
  • Address individual values, attitudes, and beliefs
  • Address individual and group norms that support health-enhancing behaviors
  • Focus on reinforcing protective factors and increasing perceptions of personal risk and harmfulness of engaging in specific unhealthy practices and behaviors
  • Address social pressures and influences
  • Build personal competence, social competence, and self-efficacy by addressing skills
  • Provide functional health knowledge that is basic, accurate, and directly contributes to health-promoting decisions and behaviors
  • Use strategies designed to personalize information and engage students
  • Provide age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate information, learning strategies, teaching methods, and materials
  • Incorporate learning strategies, teaching methods, and materials that are culturally inclusive
  • Provide adequate time for instruction and learning
  • Provide opportunities to reinforce skills and positive health behaviors
  • Provide opportunities to make positive connections with influential others
  • Include teacher information and plans for professional development and training that enhance effectiveness of instruction and student learning

Learn more about Promoting Health and Academic Success.