Learning well: Plan for a healthy start to the school year

Laura Milani Alessio, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, shared that freshly sharpened pencils, glue sticks and other supplies top the back-to-school checklist for many families. Making sure children have everything they need to stay healthy and safe, however, also is essential to a successful year of learning.

“To thrive in school, every child needs a nutritious diet, enough exercise, sleep, and other basic building blocks of wellness,” said pediatrician Sandra Hassink, who leads the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight. “Study after study shows that healthy students are better able to learn,” she said.

  • Food for thought: Research shows that children who eat a nutritious breakfast have improved concentration and memory, get better grades and score higher on standardized tests. Healthy school lunches also are an important part of a child’s overall nutrition. To supply enough nutrients and energy to last the day, meals should include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein and dairy foods. Limit highly processed products and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda.
  • Active bodies, active brains: Building an hour’s worth of exercise into the daily routine helps keep children’s bodies — and brains — strong.  Physically active students tend to have better grades, school attendance, classroom behavior and cognitive function. Because the best exercise for younger children is active play, the AAP supports daily recess in schools.
  • Arriving Safely: Walking or riding a bicycle to school is a great way to get exercise, but make sure the route is safe, and teach your child traffic safety rules. Children should always wear a helmet while riding a bike or skateboard. If your child rides a bus to school, it should have seat belts.
  • ABCs and Zzz’s: Students need between 8 and 12 hours of sleep each night. Skimping on sleep can affect their health, behavior and academic performance. Because teens naturally fall asleep later, the AAP recommends middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Light from smartphones, TVs and devices can disrupt sleep, so turn them off at least an hour before bed.
  • Infection protection: Contagious diseases like measles, chickenpox and whooping cough can make children seriously ill, so make sure your child is up-to-date on immunizations. High immunization rates at your child’s school provide another layer of protection to prevent disease outbreaks. Check individual school immunization rates at SchoolDigger.com.
  • Have a plan: Make sure your child’s medical forms are up-to-date. Students with chronic conditions like allergies or asthma should have a written plan filled out by their pediatrician.
  • Back(ache)-to-school: Make sure backpacks don’t exceed 10 to 20 percent of body
    Select backpacks with wide, padded shoulder straps; urge your child to use both straps; adjust the pack so the bottom sits at the waist; and regularly take out unneeded items.
  • Bullying: Studies suggest that one out of every four students in U.S. schools is bullied regularly. Scientists are learning more about the toll this type of “toxic stress” can take on a child’s physical and mental health. Make sure your child knows that bullying is never OK. Alert school officials and your pediatrician to bullying problems and work on solutions.
  • Time out for family meals: Studies have shown that children who eat with their families have healthier diets. Family meals are also opportunities to catch up on what’s happening at school, ask about friends, and learn how your child is coping with the start of school. Make your meals media-free. “A new school year is a great opportunity to establish healthy habits,” Dr. Hassink said, “that will help children succeed in the classroom and beyond.”


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