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Help Your Child Make The Grade

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Over the next several weeks, students will be trading their beach bags for back packs as more than 50 million students across the country head back to school. While children think about back-to-school shopping, new teachers, and homework, parents should be thinking about encouraging healthy habits to help their kids start school. Anita Chandra, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group and a spokesperson for the Illinois Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics, preps parents for a back-to- school pop quiz.

Among the five “subjects” for a healthy transition into the new school year are: Vaccinations, Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise and Stress.

While students are gearing up for the first day of classes, school and health officials are prepping for a possible outbreak of H1N1 virus, or swine flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is preparing for a surge of H1N1 cases this flu season and are expected to have an initial 120 million vaccinations ready for late October. Since the vaccination will miss the back to school mark, Dr. Chandra urges parents to go over and practice good health habits with their children to help prevent the spread of H1N1.

* Avoid close contact with an ill person

* Stay home when you are sick

* Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze

* Keep hands away from eyes, nose and mouth and wash hands often and well

* Know the contact information for your child’s school nurse

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Beyond the flu vaccine, it’s also important to ensure your child is up to date with routine vaccinations such as diphtheria, tetanus and measles. In addition to proof of inoculation against communicable diseases many states now require that students entering kindergarten and certain grade levels undergo vision, hearing and dental examinations. “These assessments are integral in the detection of health conditions that could cause serious illness,” says Chandra. "Since recommendations can change throughout the year, be sure to stay up on recommendations and check in with your pediatrician if it’s been awhile since your child’s last physical.”

Another way to prevent sickness is to ensure that children get a good night’s sleep. And chances are that during the summer a child’s sleep schedule becomes less regular, however as the weeks of summer dwindle down it’s important to establish a back to school routine. Children who get the optimal eight to 11 hours of sleep are more likely to earn higher grades than their peers who get less sleep. Irregular sleep patterns can sap the alertness and energy vital to school performance.

In order to help ease children into a back-to-school sleep routine, Chandra recommends that several weeks before the start of school parents should set a limit for the latest bedtime and wake up time. Then gradually move these times earlier (about 15 minutes every other day) as the school year starts to approach. Be consistent and use this schedule even on weekends to help in the adjustment to an earlier school schedule. It’s also helpful to emphasize activity and bright light in the morning by going outside for walks or playing with friends rather than sitting indoors or in front of the television and avoid caffeinated of high-sugar drinks near bedtime. Create a good sleep environment that is cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable

Research has shown that after a good night of sleep, children who ate breakfast had better standardized test scores, better behavior, and were less hyperactive than children who skipped breakfast. Fresh fruit, foods rich in whole grains, fiber and protein can kick-start the day and improve concentration and memory, while a nutritious packed lunch will keep your child’s mind sharp and ready to learn all afternoon. Snacks such as pretzels, granola bars, fruit kabobs and celery with peanut butter and raisins are nutritious options that most kids enjoy and can be a great after school treat.

To keep these dietary changes going all year long, Chandra encourages parents to involve kids in planning out meals and to make it a family effort to rid the cabinets of junk food. In addition parents may consider involving children in grocery shopping and cooking family meals, and can prepare healthy weekly meals in advance. Chandra cautions against rewarding good grades with junk food items such as pizza, candy and ice cream.

Along with good nutrition, research is showing a growing link between fitness and academics. Therefore, make exercise the family’s semester long homework assignment. Over the past 30 years, the percent of overweight children age six to 11 has more than doubled. To help offset the rise in obesity, the general consensus of grade-schoolers, tweens and teens is at least one hour of moderate-intensity physical activity each day.

“There are numerous ways that parents can encourage kids to be active. From family bike rides to kids versus adults neighborhood softball games, the important thing to remember is to make fitness fun. Be creative,” says Chandra.

As the first day of school approaches, jitters may seem like a normal part of growing up, children can start to feel a great deal of anxiety associated with school. Whether it be triggered by worries such as incomplete or late homework, not knowing the answer when called upon in class and feelings of not fitting in, parents need to be on the lookout for behaviors that could signal serious distress that can hinder your child’s progress, such as: irritability, impulsive behavior, nightmares, headaches or stomachaches, and a consistent lack of desire to go to school.

As the school year gets into full swing, many children can also become overwhelmed with extracurricular activities and little time to relax after school. A child’s reluctance or refusal to go to these activities may be signs that they're overscheduled. “Children are not always forthcoming with, and many times not able to identify, what’s causing them to be unhappy or unproductive,” says Dr. Chandra. “Keep the lines of communication open and set aside special time daily to talk to your child. By becoming familiar with what’s happening in their life, you can help them recognize stress and anxiety and work toward a solution together.”