Experts at Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group Offer Tips for a Healthy Transition Back to School
Exercise, Proper Nutrition and Sleep Among the Cornerstones for Getting off to a Good Start
As August signals the winding down of summer, the bell rings for more than 50 million students who will be returning to classrooms this year. Amidst the back-to-school sales and meet-the-teacher sessions, parents and students should keep healthy habits top of mind to ensure they get off to a positive start. Anita Chandra, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group and a spokesperson for the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers five “subjects” for parents to teach this school season.
Early to bed, Early to Rise
For many students, summer is a welcome extended break from daily routines. Since bedtime and other rules of the house may soften during the summer months, it can be challenging to return to a set sleep schedule.
“An abrupt switch from late nights to early mornings can set the stage for irregular sleep patterns that can sap the alertness and energy vital to school performance,” says Chandra. “It’s important to foster good sleep habits within the days leading up to the first day of school.”
To avoid rude awakenings and ensure the 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night that sleep experts recommend for school-aged children, parents should guide their kids in the transition to a back-to-school schedule. Chandra recommends setting bedtimes prior to the start of school and establishing routines that include 15 to 30 minutes of quiet activities such as reading before bedtime. In addition to avoiding caffeinated or high-sugar drinks near bedtime, parents should also curb stimulating activities such as watching television, using the computer or playing video games at night, which can make falling asleep difficult and lead to sleep disruptions.
Proper Nutrition Fuels the Body
The old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day holds some truth. Research shows that kids who have breakfast are more alert in school and perform better on tests. Parents should see to it that kids get a healthy breakfast each and every day. Fresh fruit, foods rich in whole grains, fiber and protein can kick-start the day and improve concentration and memory, while a nutritious packed lunch will help your child maintain his or her momentum. Snacks such as pretzels, granola bars, fruit kabobs and celery with peanut putter are nutritious options that most kids enjoy and can be a great after school treat.
With widespread cuts in physical education programs and childhood obesity on the rise, physical activity plays a more important role than ever in a student’s daily routine. “I urge parents to make fitness a family affair,” says Chandra. There are numerous ways that parents can encourage kids to be active. “From family bike rides to a friendly game of tag or a walk to the park after dinner, the important thing is to make fitness fun.” Parents should aim to ensure their children get at least one hour of moderate-intensity exercise each day.
Children can experience a great deal of anxiety associated with school, triggered by worries such as incomplete or late homework, not knowing the answer when called upon in class and feelings of not fitting in. While these worries may seem a normal part of school life, it’s important for parents to be on the lookout for behaviors that could signal serious distress and thwart your child’s progress:
- Impulsive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Recurring headaches or stomachaches
- Consistent lack of desire to go to school
Many children can also become overwhelmed with extracurricular activities and little time to relax after school. A child’s reluctance or refusal to go to these activities may be signs that they're overscheduled.
“Children are not always forthcoming with, and many times not able to identify, what’s causing them to be unhappy or unproductive,” says Dr. Chandra. “Communication is key to helping your child recognize stress and anxiety and work towards a solution.”
Health examinations and vaccinations
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to make an appointment with your pediatrician to ensure your child is up to date with vaccinations. In addition to proof of inoculation against communicable diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis B and varicella, many states now require that students entering kindergarten and certain grade levels undergo vision, hearing and dental examinations.
“These assessments are integral in the detection of health conditions that could cause serious illness,” says Chandra. "Since recommendations can change throughout the year, be sure to stay up on recommendations and check in with your pediatrician if it’s been awhile since your child’s last physical.”