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How Can Schools Help Lift Health Barriers to Learning?

It goes without saying that a healthier student is a better student, but it’s less clear what schools are doing to help identify and address the kind of health problems that can keep children from learning.

While there are countless reasons that students don’t succeed academically, unrecognized or under-managed health conditions are far too often to blame.  Among the most common problems, described by the Children’s Health Fund as “health barriers to learning,” are uncorrected vision problems, unaddressed hearing loss, uncontrolled asthma, dental pain, persistent hunger, untreated mental and behavioral health problems, and the effects of lead exposure.

These barriers can easily be detected and addressed with school-based student health screenings and annual comprehensive child and adolescent well-care visits. But too often, students don’t receive screenings either at school or in a doctor’s office.

new study published online in PLOS ONE found that no state across the country has mandated that schools require screening of all seven of these health barriers. Authors of this study found that fewer than half of all states require comprehensive school health examinations. And only 12 of the states requiring exams have a specific state school health form.

Looking more closely at the forms from those 12 states, all require vision and dental screening, 11 test for hearing, 10 ask about asthma, nine document blood lead levels and seven ask about emotional or mental health issues. None of the state forms address hunger. Among the states without comprehensive exams, most required vision and hearing screens, while about a quarter called for dental screening, the study found.

The study also brought into sharp focus the need to support schools as a point of influence and access for student health screenings and as a vital referral and linkage partner for addressing the barriers to learning.

Schools can help ensure that low-income children and families are enrolled in the health coverage for which they qualify. They can also connect families to medical providers to ensure children are screened and connected to the early intervention and health care services they need.

Medicaid reimbursement can help schools pay for student health screenings and referrals and linkages to local health care providers. Most school districts nationwide have some children receiving health coverage through Medicaid and CHIP, the latest U.S. Census data shows. State legislation and funding can help, too.

The bottom line: States that want to tackle these health problems for children and youth could start by mandating regular student health screenings for the seven health barriers to learning and providing school districts with comprehensive health screening forms and protocols.

For states already mandating such screenings, assessing compliance and the degree to which school districts are tracking management of the health conditions identified through screenings can go a long way to preventing children from remaining at risk for health conditions that can compromise their learning.

[Read More: What's at Stake for Schools in the Health Care Bill]

Candace Webb is a Senior State Health Policy Analyst at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families.