Is Your Child School-Ready?
A new academic year is almost here. Consider five wellness basics to make sure he or she is prepared for success.
It’s a fact: Healthy kids are better learners. Studies show that children who suffer from poor vision, mental health issues, obesity, substance abuse or an array of other health disorders don’t perform as well in school as their peers. “If anything is bothering them—if their stomach is upset or their throat is sore—it’s harder for kids to concentrate and learn properly,” says Mary Wolf, M.D., a pediatrician at North Jersey Pediatrics in Fair Lawn. She shares tips on what you can do to help make this year your kid’s healthiest and most successful yet:
- Prioritize hygiene. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s the importance of washing our hands regularly and covering our mouths when sick to avoid spreading or receiving germs. The common cold, the stomach flu, strep throat and other illnesses are common in schools, so Dr. Wolf advises making sure your child washes his or her hands during three “built-in times” during the school day: on arrival at school, before eating and after each bathroom visit. Of course, she notes, kids should wash (or sanitize) more frequently if they’re blowing their noses, sneezing or coughing a lot.
- Establish healthy eating and exercise habits. Kids ages 5 and up should get at least an hour of physical activity a day that’ll get their heart rates up, notes the doc. This can be through organized sports, or simply “going to the playground or running around in your own backyard,” which is easier to do in the summer and should be continued once the school year begins. Also make sure your child’s diet is rich in fiber, fruits and vegetables, and that any fruit juice and sugary drinks and snacks are consumed as treats, just one or two times a week. Easier said than done, sure, but “kids eat what’s in the house, so bring in healthy options,” says Dr. Wolf. “Place a fruit bowl on the counter and put the cookies where kids can’t help themselves.” Have a picky eater who only consumes nuggets and pasta? Our doc notes it takes 15 exposures to a food for a kid to like it, so keep introducing that broccoli, and pair it with foods they already love. “Eventually, their taste buds will change.”
- Check in on mental health. Children’s mental state is just as important as their physical wellbeing. Dr. Wolf says to keep an open line of communication and encourage your child to discuss her or his feelings. “This won’t come easily to teens because they’re developmentally more likely to talk to peers,” she says, “but being a nonjudgmental adult they feel safe talking to is important. Or, if that’s not you, let them know they can speak to teachers, counselors or other trusted adults.” If you sense your child is struggling but won’t open up, make it clear that many people go through stages of feeling sad. And if it’s a persistent issue of emotional health, the youngster isn’t alone there either. “Just find a place where the child feels comfortable opening up and make sure that line of communication is strong.”
- Establish good sleep hygiene. “Everything kids learn during the day is processed during sleep, so if their sleep is disrupted, they don’t have adequate overnight time to process the learning,” Dr. Wolf explains. Parents of elementary school kids should aim for their youngsters to get eight to 10 hours of sleep a night; high schoolers do best on eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half hours. “A recent study found that kids who sleep a consistent 10 hours a night have better outcomes as far as learning and response to testing,” Dr. Wolf says. But the biggest factor in good sleep hygiene is avoiding screen time an hour before bed; if kids’ eyes are exposed to blue light, their bodies won’t produce melatonin, which helps the body wind down. And she suggests getting your child back on a school sleep schedule about four weeks before the first day of school. “Scooch bedtime back by 15 minutes every few days for a month to get back in a routine,” she advises.
- Encourage sensible limits with extracurricular activities. Children should have outlets for activity and enjoyment outside the classroom, but there is such a thing as being too well-rounded. Dr. Wolf notes that some children thrive in structured activities and look forward to their after-school plans; others could be struggling to finish their homework because their schedule is too packed. “You have to know your kid,” she says. “Prioritize time for sleep, fun and unstructured play, and fill up the remaining hours with extracurricular activities.” If your child seems stressed out by too many to-dos, encourage him or her to choose their top two activities and stick with those.
3 DANGERS YOU SHOULD UNDERSTAND
Yes, they’re disparate—like apples, oranges and pears. But the three problems below can affect even healthy kids in elementary, middle and high schools. So here’s your primer:
• Head lice: The bad news is lice is they’re contagious with head-to-head contact. The good news: After treatment (usually with topical creams and shampoo), she or he can go back to school the next day.
• Scoliosis: This is a horizontal curvature of the spine, usually in adolescents, that in mild cases often needs only careful monitoring, but that can occasionally require corrective surgery. Schools these days screen for scoliosis, as do pediatricians during annual well visits, especially when kids are going through growth spurts. “But if your child is experiencing back pain, get them screened as soon as possible,” says Fair Lawn pediatrician Mary Wolf, M.D.
• Bullying: Sometimes, says Dr. Wolf, a child’s vague comments about stomach aches or headaches can be a clue that something (or someone) at school is upsetting them. “Bring up the possibility of bullying so that your child can feel comfortable speaking about it with you if needed,” she says.