School health policies are an important part of the comprehensive school health (CSH) framework. Policies strengthen school health efforts and contribute to a whole school approach.
Policies are powerful tools that can influence goals, priorities, decisions, and resource allocation. School health policies shape school culture by defining shared values, beliefs, norms, and intentions. Sometimes, these policies are the starting point for an important change. Other times, policies simply spell out practices already in place.
Best practices in school health policy
For more than a decade, AHS health promotion facilitators have worked alongside partners in education to guide the development, rollout, and evaluation of school health policies. We’ve drawn on all that experience, as well as looking at evidence, to pull together some guiding ideas to help bring school health policies to life. These include:
- Follow best practices in policy development
- Keep it clear, structured, and specific
- Focus on how you'll get the word out
- Gather resources for implementation
- Evaluate and improve
Explore these ideas and be sure to email email@example.com if you need policy support from a member of our team.
Follow best practices in policy development
When it comes to creating new policies—or updating existing ones—the process is just as important as the outcome. While there’s no one-size-fits-all model, the process of developing high-quality policies almost always involves:
- Starting with an accurate understanding of what’s currently going on in the school community
- Ensuring commitment and support from senior school leadership within the school authority or school
- Planning for ongoing engagement with all members of the school community, especially those who will be directly affected by a policy shift
- Creating a policy advisory committee or team
- Find members who have policy-related skills and experience—can they help to make the policy easy to understand and fit with the school’s culture?
- Make sure members have knowledge of policy options—will the policy work to address the underlying issues?
- Plan for thoughtful decision-making on whether a policy is the best course of action—is it acceptable, feasible, and likely to bring about positive change?
Before you put pen to paper, reflect on these practices. Paying close attention to the process of policy development sets the stage for longer-term success.
Keep it clear, structured, and specific
Policies create the structure that will support your school health goals, so you want to make sure you get it right. Prepare to write, review, revise, and re-write! It can take time to land on the content, language, and detail you're looking for.
Being clear, structured, and specific will help you write an effective policy. Here’s how:
When you structure the written policy...
- Include a clear purpose statement that explains what the policy intends to do
- Provide background information such as:
- A description of the issue or current state
- Links to relevant legislation or strategic directions, like education plans or school plans
- Definitions for key terms used in the policy
- Use evidence to help you determine what activities support use of the policy
When you write the actions in the policy...
- Get specific about who the policy applies to and what actions are needed
- Be clear about who is responsible for carrying out the actions of each piece of the policy
- Focus on what can go right by describing expected behaviours or practices instead of dwelling on what’s not appropriate
- Set realistic timelines for when the policy will be in place and when it will be reviewed
When you choose the wording of the policy...
- Keep your policy concise and easy-to-read by breaking lengthy sections into smaller parts—for example, use headings, paragraphs, and bulleted lists
- Use simple language to make sure everyone will understand what they’re reading—combine this with the above suggestion
- Use clear and strong language to make your policy easier to understand and apply—try words like will, shall, and must in place of consider, encourage, or promote
Focus on how you'll get the word out
As your draft policy comes together, consult broadly across the school community. This will give everyone a chance to ask questions, raise concerns, and provide feedback. This is especially important if your policy is likely to bring about major change.
The best way to engage people is to do it in ways that work for them. For example, teachers might prefer to review a draft policy in a staff meeting or talk about it in a focus group. Parents and other caregivers might opt for online surveys or virtual FAQ-style sessions. Students might appreciate being engaged in a variety of ways—for creative ideas, go to amplify student voice.
As your policy gets closer to becoming final, think through a communication plan. Here are some elements to include:
Access to the policy
Using a variety of communication methods boosts the chances that all members of your school community are aware of your policy as it rolls out.
Gather resources for implementation
With your policy in hand, it’s time to prepare for effective policy implementation. Having a strong plan will help you use your policy to create change.
Here are some rollout tips:
- Encourage school health champions and wellness teams to champion the changes. This will support how closely people follow or support the policy.
- Make sure that it’s clear who’s accountable for carrying out the policy.
- Compile a list of resources that support the policy and share widely throughout the school.
- Think about what’s already in place that complements the policy. For example, a warm jacket and toque lending system would support an all-weather recess policy.
Here are some planning tips:
- Determine whether any professional learning, staff planning time or additional funding is needed for success.
- Plan to regularly review the policy to make sure it’s still a good fit for the school and aligns with your school health goals.
Comprehensive school health components don’t stand alone, each one supports or builds on the next.
By taking action on school health policy, it gets easier to move forward other components of the CSH framework.
Evaluate and improve
Once your policy is well-established, you’ll likely get a sense of the difference it’s making in your school community. For example, you might make observations, hear stories, or simply have a hunch.
It makes good sense to take stock of your school health policy over time. Evaluating your policy can help you figure out how well it’s used and if it’s contributed to change.
Policy evaluation doesn’t have to be complicated. Begin by considering the purpose of the policy—what change were you trying to achieve? Then, identify the specific questions you’d like to answer. Next, map out the sources of information you could use to help answer them. Here are some ideas:
- To track how well your school nutrition policy is working, take photos of the food and drinks available at school and keep track of daily or weekly food menus.
- To get feedback on your annual school plan or education plan, create short online surveys that parents and other caregivers can complete at home or when they drop by the school.
- To figure out if daily physical activity is being rolled out as intended, get students involved in tracking the amount of time they spend in movement-based activities at school.
- To assess whether your school authority is addressing a division-wide inclusion policy, you could measure the effectiveness of division-wide professional development on the topic and count the number of schools with gay-straight alliances.
Commit to evaluate and improve your policy on a regular basis—it’s part of continuous learning and quality improvement. As much as possible, use the evidence you’ve gathered to inform next steps. Often, evaluating a policy can point to ways the policy can be adapted or strengthened.
Developing and implementing effective healthy school policies
Alberta Health Services
Introduction to policy evaluation
Alberta Health Services
Policy readiness tool
PLACE Research Lab, University of Alberta
Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention