Another summer is winding down, which means the kids will soon be headed back to school. It’s a hectic time for parents who have plenty to worry about, from school supplies and new clothes to vaccinations. As a pediatrician, my practice is pretty hectic too this time of year, as families fill the waiting room for back-to-school immunizations or sports physicals.
But no matter how busy it gets, I always encourage parents to sit down and make plans for the upcoming school year BEFORE it starts. Some of the things I suggest they plan for might come as a surprise. But it all adds up to the same thing: kids who are healthy, happy and well-rested have the best chance of succeeding in the classroom, and in life.
So what are some of the things parents should think about before the first school bell rings?
SLEEP — Kids who don’t get enough sleep can’t do their best academically. They’re not as alert and it can affect their moods. Older children who are sleep-deprived can sink into depression. If your children got in the habit of staying up late during the summer, start getting them to bed a little earlier each night until they reach a healthy bedtime.
What is a healthy bedtime? Start by figuring out how much sleep they need. Nine or 10 hours is a good, ballpark estimate for many, but it depends a bit on the child. Ask yourself this: When they got to sleep as late as they wanted during the summer, how many hours did they sleep? That’s probably about how many they need. Use that number to calculate a reasonable bedtime: If they need 10 hours of sleep, and have to get up at 7 a.m., they should go to bed at 9 p.m.
Yes, I’ve just given you a math problem. But look at it this way — it’s good practice before they ask you to help them with their math homework!
FOOD — Good nutrition is very important for health and for academic success. When kids eat well, they feel better. Try to see that they eat five servings of vegetables and fruits each day.
But planning for your child’s diet should begin with taking a look at your own daily routine. Breakfast is important. Do you have time to make sure they eat a good breakfast at home? If not, how will they get one after they leave? If your school’s breakfast choices aren’t nutritious (and they vary from school to school), consider sending the kids off with a banana or another piece of fruit they like.
Make sure your child eats dinner early enough to get to bed on time. It sounds likes simple advice, but families are busy these days. Parents work late or have other commitments. It’s not unheard of for people to sit down to dinner at 10 p.m. A little planning can help overcome obstacles to good family meals.
EXERCISE — Kids need exercise every day. Kids who run and play feel better, sleep better and do better in school. If it helps get them on their feet, turn off the TV and put away the video games.
Even if your child is going to be participating in PE or sports, allowing them free play at home now can actually prevent injuries. Because when kids play, they move around in all different ways. If a kid has just been sitting all summer, they may lack flexibility in games and sports, and risk spraining an ankle. Free play has also been shown to be good for a child’s mind, too.
ACADEMICS —Poor academic performance may be a symptom of something else going on with the child. If you see your child struggling academically during the school year, don’t wait. Address it right away with the teachers. If you put it off for too long, the problem often becomes harder to reverse.
It may be a medical issue. Maybe the child has a hearing problem, or needs corrective lenses to read or see the blackboard (by the way, an annual eye exam before school starts is a good idea). Testing can detect a learning disability, which can get the child the extra help needed to keep from falling behind in school. A major reason kids don’t graduate is because they’re struggling. And we know if they graduate from high school, they’re more likely to succeed in life.
Here are a few more things to think about:
VACCINATIONS —Don’t wait until the last minute. They won’t be able to attend class unless they’re up-to-date on their shots.
TEETH — The summer is a good time to see the dentist, but try to do it earlier in the summer so that if anything is found during the exam, it can be taken care of without their having to miss school.
BACKPACKS — They should be worn correctly, and not too heavy.
Dr. Monica Gonzales is a pediatrician with Community Medicine Associates, the not-for-profit physician practice of University Health System.