CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Health and wellness is serious business at McKinley Elementary School in Wood County where many of the students and staff have become PANDAS.
The PANDAS program (Physical Activity Nutrition Discipline Attitude School) rewards participants for healthy behavior. Its goal is to promote physical activity, healthy eating and healthy lifestyle choices through development of youth leadership, peer education and role modeling.
Students and staff members earn a bead for each good behavior. The beads are then added to a lanyard that participants wear daily. One-hundred beads complete the lanyard, which earns participants a PANDAS T-shirt.
Walk or jog 5 miles; earn one bead. Drink 64 ounces of water; earn another bead. Wash your hands or eat your vegetables at lunch; earn another. Don’t use tobacco, alcohol or drugs, earn two beads a month. After participants earn 10 beads in each category, they can earn the remaining ones in any area they choose.
“The kids love it,” said Dawn Hewitt, McKinley’s school nurse and program coordinator. “It provides active solutions to the problems we know are out there. We know kids are getting heavier, watching too much TV and playing too many video games. We’re trying to think outside the box to encourage children and their families to be healthier.”
The PANDAS project is one of many across West Virginia that embraces the efforts of the state Board of Education to improve the health and wellness of West Virginia’s youth. In 2006, the board issued a position statement that placed a priority on good health and reducing childhood obesity in West Virginia. The board also recommended guidelines for counties to use in developing their own wellness policies. The guidelines address nutrition, physical activity and health education.
Earlier this year, the West Virginia Board of Education built on its strong support of health and wellness by strengthening its policy governing child nutrition. Those changes, which require that only healthy drinks are sold at school, went into effect this fall.
"We are facing an obesity epidemic,” said West Virginia Board of Education member Barbara Fish. “It’s important for students and parents to understand how serious the lifelong complications of obesity can be. Schools can really make a key difference in student health and wellness.”
Strong nutrition and wellness programs are especially important in a state like West Virginia, where one in three children born today will likely develop diabetes by the time they grow up. The state is consistently among the top three states for obesity with about a third of its residents considered obese and more considered overweight, according to the state Bureau of Public Health. Extra weight can lead to arthritis, some cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems.
“Countless research shows children with poor nutrition not only develop health problems, they score lower on vocabulary, reading, math and general knowledge tests,” said state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. “Good nutrition is paramount for children to be healthy, alert and ready to learn during the school day.”
PANDAS, which first started in 2001 with a grant through the West Virginia Department of Education’s Recipe for Success program and the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation, has seen student health at McKinley improve. Although much of the data in anecdotal, health screenings are finding a drop in obesity and other health problems, Hewitt said. Additional funding and volunteers have come from an anonymous donor, faculty senate funds and the Bureau of Public Debt, one of the school’s Partners in Education.
Although much of the program has been primarily at the school, Hewitt believes the program can be expanded into the community. She also has been contacted by several other county school districts that are interested in establishing similar programs in their schools.
“I believe that if we can help kids develop healthy habits when they are young, those habits will stay with them for a lifetime,” Hewitt said. “We have to start somewhere. If we get the kids on board, we can move into the community and make healthy habits more accessible to everyone.”
For more information, contact the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Communications at (304) 558-2699.