Schools are key sites for delivering nutrition and physical activity education and promoting healthy behaviors among students, typically without consideration of the environmental context. The School Physical Activity and Nutrition Environment Tool (SPAN-ET) was developed to assess school resources and readiness to improve nutrition and physical activity environments, suggest appropriate improvement strategies, and score impacts resulting from environmentally-based treatments. The assessment tool includes 27 Area of Interest items in two main component categories, Physical Activity and Nutrition, and considers the Physical, Situational, and Policy Environment within each component.
Educators are skilled in utilizing strategies to promote learning. Most school-based programs model outcomes at the level of the individual and evaluate impacts at the level of changes in students’ knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors (or behavioral intentions). A public health approach to promoting healthy habits focuses efforts on changing the context of the behavioral environment to make healthy options the default choice.
The School Physical Activity and Nutrition Environment Tool (SPAN-ET) was developed by child obesity prevention researchers at Oregon State University with funding from the USDA to fill a gap in Extension researchers’ and educators’ ability to understand the interplay between attributes of students (people) and schools (place), and the effect on students’ behavioral choices and learning. The SPAN Environment Tool demonstrates strong inter-rater reliability when used by trained auditors, and can be used by trained Extension educators to assess school resources and readiness to change the nutrition and physical activity environmental context, determine appropriate stage-matched intervention strategies, and track changes resulting from environmentally-based treatments.
The ability to conduct SPAN-ET assessments and provide reports to school partners that target areas and strategies for improving the nutrition and/or physical activity environments to promote healthy habits and enhance student learning outcomes supports core competencies of partnerships and learning strategies. SPAN-ET assessments and reports can be leveraged to secure grant funding for school partners to improve SPAN environments, document school-level changes resulting from national, state, and/or district level policies, and evaluate school wellness, nutrition, health and physical activity performance factors and practices.
Using the SPAN Environment Tool
Completing the SPAN-ET assessment will involve several methods of data collection, including face-to-face and/or telephone interviews with key informants, on-site direct observations, and content review of various forms of documentation, including written and/or published district and school wellness policies, nutrition and school meal policies and guidelines, school meals menus, playground rules and regulations, and others.
The most reliable assessment will occur with minimally two auditors conducting independent SPAN-ET assessments simultaneously in one school site – a team approach.
Prior to conducting the assessment, the auditors must review all 27 items (Areas of Interest) and become very familiar with the specific description and criteria against which each Area of Interest is scored. To become familiar with the SPAN-ET, we suggest that for each Area of Interest, the auditors read, reflect, discuss, and practice together how the data will be collected. Obtain your school/district wellness policy and all other required written policies/documents well in advance of the scheduled site visit. Thoroughly review documents for written evidence of meeting criteria for Areas of Interest that indicate document review as a data source. Complete all document reviews prior to conducting interviews and direct observations. Interviews of key informants who are not accessible at the school site and immediately before/after and during the school day, such as the district food service director, should be conducted (either face-to-face or by telephone) prior to the date(s) of the school site visit. Often information provided by informants can inform the process and minimize the impact of the assessment on school personnel.
Throughout the assessment process, information collected from all sources is used to verify information from other sources. Every Area of Interest requires at least two sources of information. When conducting interviews always invite informants to provide any additional information that may be important to understanding the school nutrition and physical activity environmental context.Informant and document suggestions are provided; however, keep in mind these suggestions may or may not be the best sources of information for your school/district. Your experience with and knowledge of the school/district is key to a valid assessment and reliable results.