Parents, do your own homework to help kids have a successful, healthy school year

August 18, 2013|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Nick Noel, left, 10, of Hagerstown, wears a one-strap sling backpack. Kammie Noel, 11 has a traditional backpack with two straps. For health reasons, backpacks should not be too heavy, and they should distribute weight evenly across a child's back.
Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

It’s that time of the year again, when children head off to school for lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.

The upcoming weeks will include essays, history projects and pages of problem solving.

But parents will have their share of homework, too.

They’ll be studying their children’s sleeping habits, calculating how much weight is being carried in backpacks and doing a little scientific research on germs.

It’s all part of helping kids stay healthy so they can learn and grow.

Whether your child is entering school for the first time or about to begin his or her senior year, the ABCs for good health and classroom success begin at home, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

According to the Academy, parents and caregivers are instrumental in removing obstacles that impede a child’s or adolescent’s ability to thrive academically and socially.

That includes everything from making sure young people eat healthy lunches to helping reduce the risks of illness.

If you have a student in your house, medical professionals have provided a checklist for kicking off a new school year on the right foot.


After a summer of late nights, it might be difficult for some children to get back into the routine of early morning wake-up calls.

But without the appropriate amount of sleep, children can develop basic learning problems, according to Jennifer Davis, manager of Chambersburg Hospital’s Sleep Center in Chambersburg, Pa.

“More research is showing that sleep is imperative to academic performance,” Davis said. “It’s important for parents to establish a bedtime and wake-up time, as well as a relaxing 20 to 30 minute bedtime routine, such as going to the bathroom, brushing teeth and reading a favorite bedtime story.”

Davis said children ages 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night, while teens need eight to nine hours.

“However, with large portions of the day spent on school, homework, extracurricular activities and (on) spending time with friends and family, getting adequate sleep can be difficult,” she noted.

Davis offered these suggestions for making bedtime easier:

• Children should avoid large meals an hour or two before bedtime, but eating a light snack, such as a glass of milk, a piece of fruit or cereal and milk, can help children feel full.

• A child’s bedroom should be quiet, comfortable and dark. Younger children who are still anxious might benefit from a bedtime “tool kit,” which includes a nightlight, a flashlight, a spray bottle of “monster spray” or a large stuffed animal.

• On the weekends, it’s fine to let teenagers go to bed a little later than usual and sleep in for a few hours. However, making sure they wake up within two hours of their typical wake-up time will ensure that their body clock is not disrupted too much by Monday morning.

• Paying attention to sleep habits and talking about good sleep routines with children will help them develop into adults with healthy sleep patterns.

Healthy lunches

“When you’re rushing in the morning to get ready for work and (to) send your child to school, it’s easy to choose prepackaged products for your child’s lunch,” said Jennifer Ruby, registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist with Summit Endocrinology, an affiliate of Summit Health in Franklin County, Pa. “However, a few simple swaps will provide tasty and healthy options.”

• Choosing 100 percent whole-wheat/whole-grain bread instead of white bread cuts out processed refined grains. Sandwiches made with peanut butter or lean meats, such as turkey, ham and roast beef, will provide protein to build muscle and keep your child fuller during the day.

• Instead of sugary snacks or crunchy potato chips, add fruits and vegetables, which are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals and will still satisfy sweet or crunchy cravings. Small snacks, such as cheese cubes, crackers or squeezeable yogurt, also add variety.

• Beverages such as water, flavored water, low-fat chocolate milk or 100 percent fruit juice quench thirst with less sugar than sodas. Juice servings should be limited to 4 ounces per day.

Also, Ruby suggested “to beat the morning rush, plan ahead for the week by dividing food into smaller bags or containers. And having your child serve as your helper will not only provide quality time together but also reinforce the idea of choosing healthy options.”

Fighting germs

Each year, nearly 22 million school days are lost in the United States due to the common cold, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the most important ways to prevent the spreading of illness is hand washing, said Ericka Kalp, director of Epidemiology and Infection Prevention for Summit Health.

“In fact,” she added, “it’s one of the actions that even children can take every day to help prevent the spread of germs that cause illnesses.”

To halt the spread of germs, Kalp offered these tips:

• Wash your hands often with soap and warm water, especially after you cough or sneeze. You can also use alcohol-based hand cleaners.

• Make sure you cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

• Avoid close contact with sick people. If you get sick with influenza, limit contact with others. This means staying home from school to avoid infecting others.

 Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth because germs can spread that way.


During the school year, it’s important to keep children motivated to get moving, whether through an extracurricular activity or as part of a daily routine, said Julie Morgan, licensed practical nurse with Summit Weight Management Services in Franklin County, Pa.

“Exercise is extremely important and an easy way to keep kids fit, while (also) preventing chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and metabolic syndrome,” she said. “Exercise also has been proven to improve sleep, reduce stress and depression, improve self-esteem and improve concentration — all extremely important for a child to succeed in school.”

Morgan offered 10 tips that families can use to help improve their physical activity levels.

• Have fun. Do something you enjoy.

• Listen to music when moving. It makes the time go faster.

• Don’t call it exercise. Call it play — and be playful. Use your imagination and be creative.

• The time can be split into segments throughout the day. Example: six 10-minute sessions would be fine.

• Make it a habit.

• Make time for activity. Plan it. Schedule it.

• Do activities as a family. Parents cannot expect their kids to be active if they, themselves, are not. Doing activities as a family is a loving act.

• Agree as a family to turn off the television for a week. Time for physical activity will magically appear.

• The highest predictor of childhood obesity is having both parents who are obese. The second leading predictor is having a television in the child’s bedroom. Remove it.

• Spend time outside. Walking is free.


When shopping for back-to-school items this year, there is one item that requires special attention — your child’s backpack.

Backpack weight is becoming an increasing problem, according to the American Chiropractic Association, and studies show that heavy backpacks can lead to both back pain and poor posture.

The association offers these backpack tips:

• Make sure your child’s backpack weighs no more than 10 percent of his or her body weight. A heavier backpack will cause your child to stoop forward in an attempt to support the additional weight.

• The backpack should never hang more than 4 inches below the waistline. A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing your child to lean forward when walking.

• A backpack with individualized compartments helps position the contents most effectively. Try to place the heaviest items closest to the body, and make sure that pointy or bulky objects are packed away from the area that will rest on your child’s back.

• Bigger is not necessarily better. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry and the heavier the backpack will become.

• Urge your child to wear both shoulder straps. Lugging the backpack around by one strap can cause a disproportionate shift of weight to one side, leading to neck and muscle spasms, as well as low back pain.

• Wide, padded straps are important. Nonpadded straps are uncomfortable and can dig into the shoulder.

• The shoulder straps should be adjustable so the backpack can be fitted to your child’s body. Straps that are too loose can cause spinal misalignment and pain.

• If the backpack is still too heavy, talk to your child’s teacher. Ask if your child can leave the heaviest books at school and bring home only lighter materials or workbooks.


For some students, the school year can bring on stress as they adjust to new teachers, new classmates and, in some cases, a new school. Stress is a normal part of life, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, but if it happens too often or lasts too long, it can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomachs, back pain and trouble sleeping. It also can make a child moody or depressed.

The Academy offers these suggestions:

• Talk to your children about how they are feeling as they get closer to starting school. Make sure they know there are ways to deal with their stress.

• Teach them time-management techniques.

• Help them unwind with a hobby, game or a good book.

• Let them know they can talk to you, and together you can work through any problems.

• If they are unwilling or uncomfortable speaking with you, suggest they talk to a school counselor or find a professional mental health specialist.

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