A healthy start for back to school
Author: Sara Rider

Summer is like that movie you wish didn’t have to end; except for the 100 degree-days, what’s not to like? There are family vacations, trips to the pool, lots of great summer foods – all the things that can make summer memorable!

But just like that favorite movie, the extra freedom that’s often a part of summer is going to end as the school year begins. And with a little planning and good communication, parents can help make the transition easier for the whole family.

Returning to the routine
For children who have not been actively involved in summer camps or activities that kept them on a schedule similar to that of the school year, one of the first adjustments can be the sleep routine that is part of getting to school on time.

“One of the first things parents usually ask when we talk about getting ready for the school year is about sleep routines,” reveals Dr. Alison Ziari, pediatrician at ARC Discovery and assistant chief of pediatrics. “Most of the time their sleep routines are disrupted in the summer. In general, I recommend trying to keep children on their regular sleep schedules during summer because then it’s not such a hard transition back to school. But sometimes that’s not possible,” she concedes.

If children haven’t had a busy schedule during the summer, sleeping late and napping can have been pretty commonplace for the last two months. “If that’s the case, then I would recommend at least three weeks before school starts to begin to get them back on a regular schedule,” suggests Ziari. “If they’ve gotten really out of whack where their bedtime is two hours later than normal, then you need to start moving them back in 15-minute increments every few days until you get them back on the regular schedule.”

Part of the schedule adjustment also means getting kids up at the regular school time in the morning, to help reset their internal clocks in preparation for those early mornings.

School anxiety
Sometimes when children head back to school, they can experience anxiety in those last few weeks of summer as they prepare for a new grade or a new school. The Mayo Clinic reminds us that most people are nervous about change, and that children aren’t exempt from feeling anxious. According to the Mayo Clinic, the first step is to assure your child that what he or she is feeling is normal and ask for specifics about what is making your child anxious.

“If [he or she is] verbalizing concerns about going back to school, then definitely talk through what [his or her] concerns are,” offers Ziari. “Say your child is going to second grade and there are other kids in the neighborhood who have already been through second grade, then give [him or her] a chance to talk to those kids.”

The Mayo Clinic also recommends making contact with classmates in the last month before school starts and, if possible, talking to your child’s new teacher about what the classwork will be like next year. If your child is going to a new school, a field trip to look at the new surroundings can also help.

“Talk with your children and get them used to the idea that things are going to be new and exciting,” suggests Dr. Ziari. You can also help by talking about times when you faced changes that made you anxious, and tell your child how you handled the situation.

Mean kids
Sometimes a child is anxious about going back to school because he or she has been teased or bullied during the previous school year. If your child had problems last year and is expressing concern about it in the coming year, talk with your son or daughter about ways to handle the situation. The Mayo Clinic recommends that mild teasing can often be diffused with humor, but when teasing continues over time, it can cross the line into bullying. Be sure your child understands it’s important to let you know if he or she feels unsafe at any time.

The Mayo Clinic cautions that children who are bullied may begin to dislike school and their classroom performance can suffer as a result. As the school year gets underway, keep the conversation going with your children so that you know when to step in with the teachers and administrators if you suspect bullying.

Exploring new options
In addition to those new clothes for back-to-school, see if you can use these last few weeks of summer to get your children to try a few new foods so you’ll have more options when it comes to school lunches or school-night dinners. “Summer is a great time to experiment,” encourages Ziari, “so try and get your kids to try some different fruits and vegetables before the school year starts. If you have time, it’s better to get them involved in helping you prepare new foods, since they are more likely to try something that they have actually had a hand in making.”

Dr. Ziari suggests trying foods that could easily become part of a more nutritious school lunch. “If you want to try something like rice cakes with hummus or a new vegetable like cucumbers or tomatoes, that’s a great way to get some protein, vegetables and carbohydrates.” She also recommends trying celery and hummus or peanut butter as an afterschool snack, so they have something different to eat at the end of the school day.

Ready and able
If you haven’t already taken care of your child’s back-to-school check-up, now is the time to do it. “We certainly recommend using the summer to do your check-ups right before school. And it’s also a time to talk about concerns kids have about their own bodies and concerns parents might have about their children’s hearing or vision,” agrees Ziari. “Back-to-school check-ups give the pediatrician a chance to look [kids] over from head to toe and be sure that there isn’t anything different than we would expect. We also look at their growth – are they growing along their growth curve appropriately?”

But the bottom line, says Dr. Ziari “is to get them ready and be sure that they are all set to go for the school year.”

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.

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