The energy around the start of the school year can feel like a hive of busy bees buzzing with excitement, anticipation and for some, worry. As parents, teachers, medical providers and community members, we can help children get off to a good start by encouraging them to develop healthy habits, including getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, drinking plenty of water, participating in daily exercise, and organizing their day to reduce stress as much as possible.
When students do not get enough sleep, they can have difficulty absorbing information. If this persists, others may assume the child has a learning disability—a label that may not fit. Also, chronic tiredness can cause children to behave poorly, which may eventually lead to a misdiagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Elementary students should go to bed by 8:00 pm, middle school students by 9:00 pm, and high school students no later than 10:00 pm. When students get enough sleep, they are better able to handle the mental, physical and emotional demands of school.
NUTRITION AND BATHROOM HABITS
Throughout the day, children should eat nutritious meals and snacks that include fruits, veggies and healthy proteins so they have enough fuel for learning and play. One thing to watch for in elementary schoolchildren is healthy bathroom habits. Sometimes children avoid school bathrooms—either because they are uncomfortable with unfamiliar surroundings, because they are afraid of bullying, or because they are embarrassed to use the bathroom with peers nearby. To avoid having to go to the bathroom at school, they hold their urine and stool, and they don’t drink enough water. Your child’s urine should be very light yellow or clear, and children should have a bowel movement about once a day. Discuss these details with your child so they know what’s normal and give them an opportunity to share any problems. It’s a good idea to send your child to school with a refillable water bottle that holds at least 16 ounces.
EXERCISE AND BACKPACK SAFETY
Another way to keep children healthy is by making sure they get an hour of exercise a day. This helps them expend energy, learn about teamwork, and gain confidence outside the classroom.
Be careful that your child isn’t carrying an overly heavy backpack to school. To avoid back problems resulting from excess weight on their growing frames, make sure backpacks do not weigh more than 15 percent of the child’s body weight when full. Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and remind your child to use both straps to evenly distribute the weight. If the school allows it, consider a rolling backpack.
Once you’ve helped your child minimize physical stress with enough sleep, good nutrition, daily exercise and a backpack that doesn’t cause back pain, it’s time to think about emotional health. Every child is different—situations that some children find exciting send others into a nervous tailspin. One way to reduce stress for almost all children is making sure they get to school five to ten minutes before school starts. This allows them to prepare their mind for a day of learning. Being on time for school every day will help students develop a habit that will benefit them for the rest of their school career, as well as in the work world someday.
Once school has been in session for a month or two, check in with your child’s teacher. If you’re concerned about your child’s academic or behavioral performance, request a “psycho-educational evaluation” to test for learning disabilities like dyslexia and other challenges. Public schools can provide Individualized Learning Plans (IEPs) when necessary. If you’re concerned about ADHD, contact your child’s medical provider who can work with you and your child’s teachers to determine whether your child needs treatment or modifications at school.
For more information about keeping your child healthy, visit HealthyChildren.org.
Casey Johnston is a board-certified pediatrician at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people of all ages in Lake and Mendocino Counties.