School District Resources

School Health Services: What They Are & The Role of Nurses

School health services are an essential part of the school community. Students spend about a third of their time in schools. Having access to the support they need to stay mentally and physically healthy has broad-reaching effects on the students, their families, and the community.

In some cases, the health professionals that students come in contact with while in school are the ones that they see most often. Students form relationships with their school counselors and therapists that make them feel comfortable talking about things they may otherwise not know how to address.

Every member of the school health services team provides necessary services, but the school nurse is essential in maintaining the health of the students. With the changes expected in the new school year and those to come, school nurses are going to play an even more pivotal than they already do.

What Are School Health Services?

School health services are an important part of the CDC Healthy Schools plan to promote the health and well-being of children in schools. They recommend a student-centered model emphasizing community involvement and the implementation of evidence-based practices.

The specific health services offered by schools vary drastically and include school-based nutrition and nutritional education, physical education programs, instilling life-long health habits, linking to community resources, and helping students manage chronic health conditions.

The Different School Health Services

Because the scope of school health services is so vast, many roles need filling. Some professionals serve the entire student body, while others work one-on-one with students who need extra help and support.

Speech-language pathologists diagnose, assess, and treat not only speech and language disorders, but also social and cognitive communication and swallowing disorders in children. They work with students on everything from stuttering to understanding language and sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Speech language pathologists work with other school professionals to support the students that require their expertise and can train and educate family and caregivers as needed.

School psychologists are trained with a special focus on child development in the school context. They are capable of assessing and intervening with individual students when necessary, evaluating and managing behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and social problems. School psychologists also play a role in developing and implementing preventative programs for the entire student body. They work with teachers to develop educational environments that meet students' needs and with parents and other school health service professionals to provide well-rounded support.

Special education teachers are essential for students with emotional, mental, physical, or learning disabilities. They adapt lesson plans for students with mild to moderate disabilities and teach basic skills when necessary. Special education teachers develop, implement, and update Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) throughout the year and work with other staff members, counselors, parents, and teachers to prepare the student to transition to the next grade level or prepare for life after school.

Another important part of school health services is a school occupational therapist and therapy assistants. They help children who need support with both academic and non-academic skills, including participating in sports, improving social skills, reading, and writing. School occupational therapists analyze the learning environment and suggest adjustments that can be made to improve the classroom for increased access and participation from all students. They also determine when alternative approaches to learning are necessary.

School-based physical therapists specialize in body movement and are integral to school health services. They make sure children with physical disabilities have access to appropriate educational resources and prepare them for life after school, whether this includes employment, continuing education, or independent living.

School social workers help students with all of the outside factors affecting their ability to learn. When the home environment becomes destabilized in any way, social workers make sure the children's needs are still met as they attempt to learn and adjust in the classroom. School social workers are trained to assist with mental health and behavioral concerns. They provide counseling and work together with parents, teachers, and administrators to do what is right for the child. Social workers play an integral role in helping schools meet their academic missions by interacting in the space where school, home, and community intersect.

School counselors not only help students explore future career options and figure out how to get there, but they also help students in many other ways. In addition to assisting with aptitude tests, planning, and interviewing skills, they also identify behaviors that interfere with school performance, manage individual and small group counseling, and teach about specific topics affecting the school as a whole, like bullying and drug abuse. School counselors meet with parents to discuss special needs and work to provide a caring, supportive environment where every child can thrive.

Advantages of School Health Services

School health services benefit not only the students and staff but also the community as a whole. Having resources available at school provides an opportunity to reach populations that don't have regular access to the guidance, support, and mental health care they need. Some studies have shown that access to health services increases school attendance and can make students with chronic health conditions more compliant with treatment. For example, children with asthma are more likely to use inhalers when the behavior was reinforced at school.

The Role of Nurses in School Health Services

One of the most important members of school health services is the school nurse. It is a common misconception that school nurses only take care of the scrapes kids get on the playground and decide when to send sick kids home from school. In reality, they do so much more.

Care coordination for students with chronic health conditions is essential not only for the health of the child but also to ensure that they can still learn in school. They work with families, teachers, and other members of staff to make sure the students' medical needs are met, no matter how complex they are.

Children with chronic health conditions, like asthma, epilepsy, food allergies, or more complex issues, are more likely to miss school than other students which eventually leads to poor school performance. Having a nurse available in the school setting is one way to help combat this, making sure that students with chronic illnesses have the care they need at school while meeting federal and state guidelines for providing the necessary accommodations.

School nurses are often the only health professional in the building, and the only person trained to respond to a medical emergency. When someone gets hurt or injured or if large scale disasters or emergencies happen, the school nurse is prepared to respond.

The ratio of one school nurse for 750 students is a common recommendation, but this assumes a healthy student body and a normal, uneventful school year. The National Association of School Nurses recommends one nurse to 225 students for daily services and one nurse to 125 students when there are complex health needs within the school.

New challenges lie ahead in the next school year and the years ahead. Some schools may have gotten by in the past with a single nurse for 750 students or no nurse at all, but in the changing landscape, adequate school nurse staffing is essential. One full-time school nurse may have been enough in the past, but schools may soon need to have two or three nurses on staff to get closer to the recommended ratio of one nurse to 225 students now that daily health services are no longer optional.

The Challenges Of School Health Services

Finding school nurses is not easy. Only about 3.3 percent of registered nurses are qualified to work in schools, and the current nursing shortage means that there are a limited number of candidates out there. With the changes that are sure to take place in the next school year and beyond, administrators should start planning now to make sure any school nurse vacancies are filled and that they bring on a second or third school nurse as needed.

A quick and effective solution is to contact a staffing agency that can provide qualified candidates for a school nurse position or any other member of the school health services team. Staffing agencies take care of screening and interviewing potential candidates, making sure that they hold the right credentials and that they're a good fit for the job.

Using an agency eliminates the need for the school to recruit and interview candidates for school nurse positions. The school nurse shortage combined with an increased need for nurses means that some schools may have a hard time attracting talent. By using an agency to hunt down skilled candidates, school administrators can focus on preparing for the many demands of the new school year.