Back to school time is full of mixed emotions. Despite the excitement of a new year, replacing the lazy days of summer with the all-too-familiar school year grind is a tough transition.
I get a lot of questions from parents about how to keep their kids healthy while in school. It’s a natural concern because we ask a lot of kids during the school year, and we’re not there to oversee their every move. If you’re already bracing for the demands that come with school, a little advance prep can help. Here are easy fixes to the five biggest health concerns that keep parents up at night.
Lack of sleep. Elementary kids need between nine and 12 hours, and teens need between eight and 10. Usually the issue isn’t how much shut-eye they need, but how to get them that rest. Teens report sleeping only 7.4 hours on school nights, and those who get less than eight hours a night are more likely to experience stress, irritability and sadness.
Parent Fix: Bedtimes are for older kids, too. Pick a realistic time for lights out and work backwards to plan the rest of the day. Too often we prioritize everything else – sports, friends, schoolwork – over sleep, when really it should be the other way around. If you have an early riser, consider an earlier bedtime and leave homework and chores to the morning. When you make sleep the priority, your kids will be better equipped to tackle each day.
Lousy nutrition. Many parents know their kids don’t come close to meeting dietary recommendations during the school day, As a result, their kids struggle with weight gain, lack of energy and concentration trouble.
Parent Fix: A quick trip to the grocery store can put your child in charge of their own meal plan. Encourage them to pick out healthy foods that they’ll eat, and then let them pack their lunch and snacks with the things they chose. When it comes to understanding what they’re supposed to eat, visual cues work best. Keep it simple and shoot for five handfuls of fruits and veggies, another three handfuls of protein, and so on. Family meals are the best way to oversee intake, but limiting junk food around the house is a close second.
An over-packed schedule. More than half of teens think that managing their time is stressful, which can lead to a lack of sleep, weakened immune system, irritability and emotional turmoil. Having a schedule is great for kids, but too much scheduled time can have the opposite effect on their health.
Parent Fix: Follow your child’s lead. If they feel overwhelmed, they may be doing too much. Make sure you allow enough time for free time in addition to schoolwork and extracurricular activities, but remember that free time is different from screen time. Research shows that teens who spend more time with friends, exercising, playing sports, reading and even doing homework are happier than kids who spend their spare time on a device.
Head lice. Head lice is every parent’s worst nightmare, but when you have kids, sometimes it’s inevitable. Don’t panic. You don’t need to burn your belongings and shave your child’s head to get rid of this pesky problem.
Parent Fix: Typically, schools report an outbreak as soon as possible so parents can get to work delousing their kids. By pulling long hair back, keeping heads and hats away from other kids and using shampoos with natural repellents like tea tree are great ways to avoid lice. Once you spot a nit, it’s time for lice shampoo. If you’re too squeamish, hire a professional to do the dirty work for you. Regardless of your strategy, you need a plan to get rid of the critters, and a good sense of humor.
Bullying. As many as one in three students have been bullied in school. The most common forms are emotional and social, though physical and cyber bullying are big problems too. All types can lead to real health risks like depression, violence or suicide.
Parent Fix: Talk with your kids, the school and other parents who are navigating the same social tensions. Bullying may seem subtle, but it can result in deeply ingrained feelings of resentment or low self-worth, so doing nothing or riding out a situation is never the best way to move forward. If your child is having a hard time talking about it with you, reach out to a school counselor or a nurse practitioner to get to the bottom of the situation.
If you’re already worrying about your child’s health this school year, start with these simple fixes. If you’re still concerned, an NP can help.