Back to School – The Pediatrician’s Primer
Hylton I Lightman, MD, DCH (FAAP), DCH
I love this time of the year. Back-to-School. It engenders warm, fuzzy feelings of optimism and hope as we embark on a new school year with the Jewish New Year not far behind. Even people who have “aged out” of this phase of back-to-school are caught up in this mood which is pregnant with possibilities.
Like anything else, some planning can help to make a “win-win” for Back-to-School for you and your children. Here are some proven tips to help your family during this important time.
The sleep schedule
This is a public service announcement advocating for sleep, sleep and more sleep. Getting enough sleep is critical for success in school, including college and graduate school. And for most areas of life.
Sleep is synonymous with health. Getting sufficient sleep contributes to improved attention, safer driving, less health risks, and a more consistent mood. Honestly, most people are nicer when they have slept.
Quick reminder: school-aged children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep nightly and teens need 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours. Yes. Those are real numbers.
What should we do to achieve this?
First, pay attention now to timing. Shift slowly and start getting ready now. Labor Day weekend is still way off at the end of next week but remember that many Jewish schools are beginning already next week. If bedtime has migrated to 10pm, for example, and you’re hoping to have your kids sleeping by 8pm for school, start now. Move bedtime forward about 30 minutes every 3 to 4 days.
Next: Screens, phones, iPads, computers, etc. It’s no secret that using any kind of screen and exposing ourselves to the light they emit handicaps our natural sleep hormone melatonin from rising and helping our brain drift off to sleep. There should be a hard “cut off” time nightly when all the “toys” are laid to rest. One hour prior to the desired sleep time is the minimum. Rather than having them languish on night tables or desks in rooms, have all screens, tablets, phones, and laptops transition back to “sleeping” in the kitchen.
Healthy Children has a free downloadable checklist that is approved by the AAP Academy of Pediatrics that we recommend reviewing, perhaps printing and referring to over the next few days.
There’s something endearing about seeing kids with their knapsacks, trudging off to school or getting off the bus in the afternoon. Backpacks are a popular and practical way for children, teenagers and college students to carry schoolbooks and supplies. But they must be used correctly as they are designed to distribute the weight of the load among some of the body’s strongest muscles.
When choosing a backpack, look for:
- Wide-padded shoulder straps – Narrow straps can dig into the shoulders, causing pain and restricting circulation.
- Two shoulder straps – One-shouldered bags running across the body cannot distribute the weight evenly.
- Padded back – This protects against sharp edges on objects inside the backpack and increases comfort.
- Lightweight backpack – The contents are heavy enough. Let’s not exacerbate things.
Do the following to prevent injury when using a backpack:
- Always use both shoulder straps.
- Tighten the straps so they are close to the body. The straps should hold the pack two inches above the waist.
- Pack light. This sounds obvious but please — The backpack should weigh no more than 20% of the person’s weight.
- Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack the heaviest items closest to the center of the back.
- Use school lockers instead of shlepping everything from room to room, up and down stairs. Parents may have to speak to schools about allowing enough time for this.
- Use both knees when bending down.
- Learn back strengthening exercises to carry the knapsack.
Making the 1st day of school easier
My dear parents — You don’t have to wait until the first day of class to ask for help. Schools are open to address any concerns a child or parent may have. The best time to get help might be now, a week or two before school begins.
Many children become nervous about new situations, including changing to a new school, classroom or teacher. This may occur at any age or stage. If your child seems nervous, it can be helpful to rehearse entry into the new situation. Take them to visit the new school before the first day of school. Perhaps they can visit the playground in order to become more familiar with their new environment. Remind them they will see old friends and will meet new ones.
Touch base with your child’s new teachers at the beginning or end of day so that the teacher knows how much you want to be supportive of your child’s school experience. Having dinner together allows for the parents to “check in” with children and listen to any concerns.
Eating during the school day
You know this but it bears worth repeating.
Studies show that children who eat a nutritious breakfast function better. They do better in school and have better concentration and more energy. Some schools provide breakfast. If yours does not, make sure your child eats a breakfast that has some protein.
Most schools regularly send schedules of the lunch program in school or have them posted on the school’s website. With this advance information, you can plan on packing lunch on the days when the main course is one your child prefers not to eat.
Look into what is offered in your school’s vending machines. All foods sold during the school day must meet nutrition standards established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Perhaps the time has come for a groundswell revolution of parents petitioning schools to make fruits available for students. Mom and Dad – You can and should send fruits with your children to school. But let’s aim for a sugar-free or very minimal sugar environment. When a child hits the afternoon energy lows, the front desk has apples waiting. Or the vending machine, which should have zero junk snacks, and is loaded with them together with low-fat dairy products (Cholov Yisrael, of course) and water.
Please don’t tell me these are tacky ideas. I invite you to submit your suggestions how we can begin putting sugar in its place so it topples from its ubiquitous place in our children’s lives (especially schools) and is relegated to an unimportant position while we energize our children properly.
Remember: Each 12-ounce soft drink contains approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 poisonous calories. Drinking just one can of soda daily increases a child’s risk of obesity by 60%. Not enough said but I’m leaving it alone for now.
Developing good homework and study habits
Starting at a young age, create an environment that is conducive to doing homework. Children need a consistent work space. Some like the desk in the bedroom. My children have an affinity for the dining room table. What matters is the space is quiet, without distractions and promotes study.
Establish a household rule that television and other electronic distractions stay off during homework time. Many of our children need the computer for homework. Parents: Monitor, monitor and monitor, and I’m not talking about a noun that’s part of the computer set up. Be vigilant and know what goes on.
Need guidance? Not sure if you child might benefit from a tutor? Reach out to Smart Connections
Be available to answer questions and offer assistance. Never do a child’s homework for him.
If a child is struggling with a particular subject, speak with the teacher for recommendations on how you or another person can help the child at home. If you have concerns about the assignments your child is receiving, talk with his teacher. But not the first week of school. Let things settle in a bit. And teachers are also overwhelmed, too, with the school year kick off.
Help your child remember his homework assignments by tracking them on a homework sheet (younger grades) and then graduating to a homework assignment book.
Some children need help organizing their homework. It’s okay to be a “helicopter parent.” I will be extolling the virtues of the helicopter parent in a future article. For our purposes now, the best way to build independence in a child is to help them to become self-sufficient. And the earlier you start, the better. Some kids need help organizing their binders, notebooks, whatever. Checklists, timers and parental supervision (this does NOT mean doing their work) can help overcome homework problems. When your child tastes success in this area, he will want to do more.
One last note. The topic is medication. Your child may be medicated for ADD or ADHD, perhaps 365 days per year, perhaps on school days only. If your child’s medication regimen is on hiatus during the summer, before returning to school is the best time to reintroduce the medication protocol. Your child will then have time to adjust. Perhaps the dosage has to be tweaked. Please start this process the week before school resumes.
Structure your child’s environment for success. Plan for healthy sleeping and healthy eating. Make sure your child has the physical “props,” including knapsacks and homework assignment books, to succeed. Go to the Back to School nights where you meet the teachers and hear directly from them about the plans for the school year. Help build your children from the inside out and grow from strength to strength.
As always, daven.