As summer comes to an end, the steady trickle of sleepy-eyed students become a common sight at schools. The beginning of a new school year marks a time for students to slip back into a familiar schedule – getting up early, focusing on schoolwork and taking part in extracurricular activities. The new school year also marks a prime time for children to form habits, whether good or bad. Dr. Imran Haque, an internist and general practitioner based out of North Carolina, has four health tips for parents to consider for their children’s well-being when they return to school:
Sleep is critical for the growth and development of children’s mental and physical development. During summer months, children’s sleeping schedule commonly shift towards later waking hours and later bedtimes. The early start time of many schools often results in children getting less sleep than they need – which can greatly hinder their mental and physical growth. It’s often difficult for parents to tell if their child is getting insufficient sleep as symptoms may manifest differently than they do in adults. Sleepiness in children can sometimes look like attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and children can often act as if they are not tired by resisting bedtimes and becoming more hyper later in the evening.
To mitigate the potential loss of sleep involved with adjusting to going back to school, earlier bedtimes need to be enforced. Dr. Imran Haque recommends that preschoolers (3-5 years) receive at least 8-9 of hours of sleep, school-aged children (6-13 years) get a minimum of 7-8 hours, and teenagers (14-17 years) sleep at least 7 hours. Most importantly – he stresses that bed times need to become a routine, which means weekends should not become a late night free-for-alls.
Practice Good Hygiene
The spread of illnesses in environments of concentrated populations such as schools can be swift and sudden, but can be stopped by good hygiene. Dr. Imran Haque outlines the following steps for students to take in order to prevent illnesses from spreading:
Stay at home when sick. By far the most impactful choice – preventing exposure to an illness means that other students will not be affected. In addition, some illnesses such as the common cold are most contagious when they are at the peak of their infection. Have sick children stay at home to avoid potentially exposing hundreds of other students and teachers to the illness.
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Dr. Imran Haque recommends sneezing or coughing into a tissue and then throwing it away. If no tissues are accessible, sneeze or cough into a sleeve or the crook of your arm. Avoid coughing or sneezing on hands to minimize contact of body fluids, as children will likely contact many surfaces or other children with their hands, passing on any germs from their sneeze or cough.
Wash hands often with soap and water. The goal is to reduce student’s exposure to germs they contacted. Children may sometimes self-inoculate themselves with germs they pick up when touching other children or surfaces that are touched frequently, such as doorknobs. To limit the spread of germs, children should get into a habit of washing their hands after they use the restroom so to periodically kill off germs they may have picked up throughout the day.
Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth. Many germs spread most quickly through contact with eyes, nose, or mouth. Getting into the good practice of not chewing on fingers or rubbing eyes means that risk of potential infection is greatly reduced.
Many children spend the summer eating more sugar and fatty foods, while leading a more sedentary lifestyle – the start of the school year signals the time to reign in the bad diet. Dr. Imran Haque suggests getting into the habit of eating three regular meals a day, with more emphasis on healthier foods. More specifically, he recommends children eat plenty of fresh foods and vegetables.
Children’s food preferences are formed from a young age and going back to school makes for a good opportunity to sway children’s preferences towards vegetables. One method to coax kids into eat better is to pair vegetables (preferably one they haven’t eaten yet) with a food item that they prefer, such as cream cheese with brussels sprouts. A study conducted by Elizabeth Capaldi-Phillips, an Arizona State University psychologist, indicated that pairing foods with liked flavors can increase preference for those foods. Taking advantage of a child’s lifestyle change when going back to school could form the foundation for building up good eating habits for the future.
Schoolwork and class requirements are often one of the largest contributor to stress for students, and too much stress can lead to a variety of health issues including sluggish immune systems and sleepless nights. It’s important to give children opportunities to communicate what is causing them stress and providing avenues to release stress, such as time to relax, play or spend time as a family.
More specifically, It is important to stop overscheduling and give children time to play or unwind. One of the largest stressors for children is being overscheduled – the expectation that children need to focus in school for seven hours, excel in extracurricular activities, complete homework, and then repeat the same process everyday can be stifling. Kids need downtime in order to recover both mind and body, and they themselves may not realize the need to rest.