Health is more than good eating

19th June 2009 at 01:00

Health and well-being is the responsibility of all teachers, according to A Curriculum for Excellence. This is always going to be tricky. Schools are leaping ahead with health promotion. Evidence of this lies in vending machines which, supposedly, are now stuffed with healthy munchies. Take a closer look and you will find that these items are often crammed full of calories and additives. We are easily fooled. Just because chocolate has been outlawed, it doesn't follow that what is permitted is going to be beneficial.

Of course, it's notoriously difficult to change people's eating and exercise habits, but acting like a big, scary policeman will not do it. Haven't authority figures heard of reactance theory, which asserts that heavy-handedness will simply cause a boomerang effect as people quite rightly rebel?

What worries me is the over-concentration on health at the expense of well-being. Five pieces of fruit a day, regular exercise and curtailed TV- watching may result in a young person who ticks the health criteria boxes. But well-being is actually the more important of the two concepts.

Strong self-worth makes for an individual who will be motivated to be healthy, rather than a reluctant convert to the cause. Mental and emotional well-being are at the heart of a pupil's capacity to connect to the centre of their own beings and then to others.

To tackle this, schools need to engage in a much wider debate than they have to date. Discussions about A Curriculum for Excellence always take part in an arena which does not allow for radically changing the traditional structure and allocation of time to subjects. For example, religious and moral education will continue, in most schools, to have only a smidgen of the timetable. Yet there is evidence galore that kids need more opportunities to talk in a safe context, to explore ideas of a fairly personal nature, to analyse what it means to be human and to find the right relationship with themselves and others. Coping skills and positive exchanges are vital for the development of secure mental health.

Authentic living for many of our young people is a foreign language that everyone mispronounces, making it impossible to learn. They have not learnt from the errors and absurdities which afflict us all, because there was no space for them to reflect and understand what was happening to them. We, their teachers and mentors, are too often burdened by the demands of the job to go beyond the safe limits of theoretical knowledge, rather than discuss the practical experience of life.

In the lyric "Colours of the Wind," sung by Pocahontas, the words symbolise emotional, mental and spiritual well-being:

"The rainstorm and the river are my brothers

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends."

The search for meaning in our lives can't be contained by "outcomes and experiences" but by sustainability from the inside out.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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