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Back to School Health and Safety Guide
By Jennifer Lai, MD
Summer vacation is almost over. Soon, it'll be time to pack the kids' swimsuits away and start stuffing their backpacks with school supplies. To make the transition from carefree summer days to the structure of a new school year easier - and to help kids stay safe and healthy throughout the year - here are some practical tips for parents and caregivers.
Get Healthy Habits Back on Track
Many parents let routines and habits slide during the summer, which is completely understandable! Kids deal with so much pressure during the school year. Sometimes it's necessary to just let them be kids and have fun. But most children have a difficult time jumping back into a more structured routine when it's time to go back to school.
If your kids have been staying up later than usual during the summer, start their school bedtime and wakeup routine a couple of weeks before their first day back. Getting enough sleep is crucial for kids to be able to have the physical energy and mental strength to face everything school requires of them.
Sleep deprivation can result in falling asleep in class, difficulty concentrating, inappropriate behavior, and making poor decisions. School-aged kids should get at least 10 hours of sleep per night, while teens need at least eight hours.
It's also a good idea to turn off your child's screens, whether that's the TV, computer, or phone, at least an hour before bedtime since the blue light emitted by the screens can interfere with falling and staying asleep.
Your child's diet may have also gotten off track during the summer. Maybe there have been fewer structured meals, or they've been raiding the pantry for snacks multiple times a day (and maybe those snacks haven't been the healthiest). That's alright! There's nothing wrong with letting your kids have some treats during their time off. But the right nutrition during the school year can help their minds and bodies function properly.
To get them back in the habit of eating healthy, go grocery shopping together to involve them in the process of choosing nutritious lunch and afterschool snack options. Some great snack choices are nuts and seeds, apple slices with natural peanut butter, and baby carrots. Lunches should include protein and a fruit or vegetable.
On the last day of summer, spend some time in the kitchen with your kids prepping the snacks and lunches for the first week of school. Then be sure they have easy access to the snacks so they can grab them from the fridge or pantry and go!
Focus on Immunity-Boosting Behaviors
COVID isn't going anywhere soon, and other illnesses also pose a risk to kids, especially at the start of a new school year when all of the students are once again gathered together in close proximity. Before the kids go back to school, it's a good idea to get them into the habit of consuming immunity-boosting foods and vitamins and practicing smart hygiene, if they're not already.
The best vitamins for boosting immunity are vitamins A, C, and D. Some kid-friendly food sources of vitamin A are eggs, sweet potatoes, carrots, and greens. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, strawberries, cantaloupe, broccoli, and tomatoes. The sun's UV rays are actually the best natural source of vitamin D, but kids can also get some vitamin D from milk, yogurt, and non-dairy milk that's fortified with vitamin D.
Zinc is also an essential mineral that boosts the immune system. It's important to consume zinc daily since our bodies lack the ability to store it. Kid-friendly foods with zinc include beef, chicken, yogurt, cashews, and pumpkin seeds. Children can also take a daily multivitamin for their age group, but whenever possible, everyone should get their necessary vitamins and minerals from food.
During the pandemic, your kids likely got into a habit of washing their hands frequently, but before they head back to school is a perfect time to remind them of the technique of washing for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water.
It's also a good idea to send them to school with hand sanitizer and remind them to always wash or sanitize their hands before and after eating, playing, or engaging in group activities. Also remind them to sneeze and cough into their elbow and not into their hands.
Prep for Sports Safety
If your child will be participating in organized school sports, chances are they'll need to have a physical exam by their pediatrician or family doctor to make sure they meet the requirements for sports participation. If that's the case, their annual physical or well child exam can do double duty, checking that they're ready to play sports but also that they're otherwise healthy.
If financially feasible, don't cut corners when it comes to buying safety gear for whatever sport your child will be playing. Also make sure that all gear fits properly and that your child brings a water bottle to every practice and game to ensure they stay hydrated.
Although their coach will likely remind them of proper and safe stretching techniques, it's always a good idea to remind them of these techniques when they're at home, especially if they're practicing their sport outside of school.
Don't Forget About Their Mental Health
Your child's mental health is just as important as their physical health. And kids deal with a lot of stress these days - from juggling academics and extracurricular activities to facing peer pressure and fitting in.
Just the idea of going back to school, or to a new school, can cause some children to feel highly anxious, stressed, or even scared. Don't assume your child is fine just because they haven't told you they're struggling. Let them know that you're there for them to talk about anything without judgement.
Also, try not to pressure your kids to participate in extracurricular activities they're not interested in or don't feel they do well in. Work together to determine if they need an extracurricular activity and, if so, which one they'd like to join. Some kids simply don't enjoy sports. Others are more likely to thrive in a book club or volunteering.
The same principle applies to children who are shy or anxious. Pushing them to participate in something that requires them to step far outside of their comfort zone can sometimes only serve to add more pressure and stress to their lives.
It's important to get kids involved in community and interact socially, but it's equally important to ensure they don't feel like there's something wrong with them because they're socially awkward or have different interests than you or their peers.
Encourage kids to do well in school by offering incentives and positive reinforcement for good grades. This can be extra screen time, a new toy, or the favorite reward of most kids - cash.
If your child is doing their best in school, but is still struggling, try to not punish them for their grades. Instead, talk to them about what could help them do better and take advantage of any free tutoring their school offers.
It's also important to teach your kids coping skills. Life isn't easy and we all have to learn how to face challenges and grow from them. Give kids permission to label their feelings and verbalize if they feel angry, sad, or frustrated.
Encourage them to ask for help if they need it, and to never be ashamed for needing help. Teach them breathing skills, positive self-talk, and outlets for their feelings, such as doing artwork or exercising. Never berate your child for feeling sad or stressed.
If they act out and misbehave, sternly but gently let them know that their behavior is inappropriate. Also, recognize and praise them for using coping and problem-solving skills. Transitioning from summer to back to school can be challenging, but parents can help make the process go more smoothly for kids by taking some practical, proactive steps.