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Running in Place: Improving Public Education

nurturing kids' mental and physical healthReading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. In popular culture, we have a cheerful image of little Jim and Jane skipping to their suburban elementary school. Cute? Yes. Accurate? Only if Jim and Jane hail from upper-class backgrounds.

Compare Jim and Jane, two adorable first-graders from Coldwater Canyon, to Marcus and Mariel, two adorable first-graders from Los Angeles. For Marcus and Mariel, domestic violence, physical violence, and food insecurity pervade their daily lives. On Mariel’s walk to her gang-infested school, she dodges used needles and condoms. In their bleak environment, elementary school represents a critical, stabilizing influence.

Understandably, Marcus and Mariel face more emotional and behavioral challenges than Jim and Jane. Marcus, a gifted student, told his flummoxed teacher to “bleep off.” When prodded to explain his behavior, Marcus’s innocent response was, “I was repeating what Daddy says.”

First grade — yes, first grade — is the time to target and mold socially acceptable behavior. Elementary school kids, like Marcus, are impressionable enough to challenge unhealthy habits. In three years, when hopelessness hardens into antisocial and aggressive behavior, Marcus may have a juvenile record. He may be a chronic truant or engaged in petty theft. These factors are precursors to adult criminality. For Marcus and at-risk first-graders like him, the interplay between mental health, exercise, and nutrition can build resilience for him and his economically disadvantaged peers.

Before introducing a 30,000-feet proposal, let’s discuss ground-based realities. Budgets in urban cores are strained. Public schools are grossly underfunded. The achievement gap is widening. Emotion-tinged rhetoric (“ghetto schools” and “welfare queens”) sustain specious arguments. Let’s reject these emotion-fueled descriptors and recommit to the thematic goal: maximizing student welfare in the grimmest public schools.

Here is my overarching proposal: replace every physical education teacher with a mental health counselor and wellness coach. Ambitious? Sure. Achievable? You bet. The current PE model, where a hapless teacher takes formal attendance before launching into an introductory spiel, is inefficient. Sedentary kids need activity, not a PE teacher droning on. To wit, less than half of youths meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Paraphrasing Michelle Obama, let’s move!

The First Lady and I agree: we need to retrofit our current physical education model to ingrain exercise in at-risk kids. Exercise is connected to mental health wellness — critical for Marcus and kids like him. Under my proposal, physical education and recess merge. This is a cost-effective measure that:

  • Guarantees elementary school kids are exercising every day;
  • Modernizes an outdated physical education model; and
  • Frees up additional dollars for a nutrition and mental health specialist in low-income schools.

Traditional physical education courses have outlived their usefulness. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of participating students in physical education courses has steadily dropped. Only 48 percent of high school students now attend PE courses during a standard week. As more at-risk children funnel into the public school system, our physical education curriculum must adapt or risk irrelevance.

Under my proposal, flexibility is the defining feature. Exercise instructors implement the framework; students design the details. Here kids have the latitude to develop any type of heart-pumping exercise, promoting independence and creativity. Under the structured model, exercise instructors oversee team sports. Basketball, soccer, kickball, flag football — all of our childhood favorites are options in hardscrabble school districts. More important, the structured model instills cooperation, teamwork, and communication — soft skills vital to a child’s socialization.

There is a positive correlation between mental health and exercise. For children with ADHD and depression, physical activity can counter mental health symptoms. Dr. Karen Wagner attests, “Overall, studies provide support for the benefits of physical exercise in children and adolescents on executive function, brain activity, and depressive symptoms. …The importance of physical activity should be promoted in the school setting as well as in after school activities.” For Marcus and Mariel, a one-hour game of dodgeball provides physical and mental health benefits during a stationary, dreary day. These exercise habits become ingrained, elevating students’ academic performance and behavioral expectations.

Trapped in an unstable, economically distressed home environment, elementary school kids crave stability in their chaotic lives. Schools, as educational centers, community providers, and mental health stewards, can be the stabilizing resource for at-risk kids. Helpful teachers, enriching lesson plans, and healthy norms can provide a roadmap out of systemic poverty. Let’s move toward an exercise model that nurtures kids’ physical and mental health.


Strauss, Valerie. “The Real Cost of Underfunding Public Schools.” Washington Post. 14 July 2012. Local. Print.

Wagner, Karen Dr (2015, January 28). “Mental Health Benefits of Exercise in Children.” Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from

2015, June 17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

Happy kids photo available from Shutterstock

Running in Place: Improving Public Education

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Running in Place: Improving Public Education. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.