The back-to-school season brings excitement and a fresh start for students. It’s also a great time for parents to assess their child’s health and take some preventative steps before the busy school year gets underway.
To get a healthy start to the new school year, parents can do a few things before classes begin to help children start off on the right foot.
Step 1: Schedule a comprehensive head-to-toe health exam.
An annual wellness exam ensures children have up-to-date vaccines and flu shots. This time also lets parents and doctors connect to discuss typical milestones, mention concerns and schedule appointments with specialists if needed.
A pre-school wellness exam can also catch more serious issues. For example, a sudden death on the sports field is rare—it happens to less than 150 athletes each year—but regular physical exams and screenings can help identify congenital heart problems or undiagnosed heart abnormalities.
Step 2: Meet your child’s teachers before the school year starts.
To be proactive, parents should meet with, and allow their child to meet with, their educators in advance. This way, guardians can check in about school supplies, coursework or books their child should start reading. They can also use this time to find out about the teacher’s expectations for success in the classroom, from average hours of homework each week to tips they use to help students excel in the classroom.
But a summer meet-and-greet isn’t just for younger students. A quick meeting can be helpful for high school students and support positive teacher-student relationships, which could lead to college recommendations, suggestions about ways to advance in studies or how get tutoring or other support.
Step 3: Establish sleep routines a few weeks before school starts.
One of the best things parents can do a few weeks before school starts is get children into a regular sleep routine. Most children need 8-10 hours of sleep a night.
Unsurprisingly, a healthy sleep pattern supports physical and mental health benefits. Students who get adequate sleep are more likely to feel alert in the classroom and less likely to experience physical harm from sleep deprivation, which could range from missing a hole on the sports field and rolling an ankle, to missing a stop sign when they’re behind the wheel.
Optimal bedtimes, based on ages and circadian rhythms, include:
Step 4: Help your children thrive
A healthy lifestyle—adequate sleep, physical activity, a nutritious diet and stress management—is vital for every age and stage of life. In addition to practicing wellness habits, make sure to tune into your child’s mental health. More than 20 percent of children will have a mental health issue at some point in their lives, and, sadly, it takes an average of eight years to seek help, which often happens after a state of crisis.
Recognizing mental health problems early on helps the entire family:
- Track and report worrisome changes in your child’s behavior to your pediatrician.
- Find out what psychiatric and social services are available through your insurance or company program and ask about ways to take advantage of them.
- Early detection and diagnosis make mental health issues easier to correct and give your child the best chance to live a happy, healthy life.
Step 5: Use your best instincts throughout the school year
You don’t have to be a medical expert to be able to communicate your child’s health concerns. Instead, utilize your sixth sense, your parental instincts.
Pediatricians consider parents or primary care givers as active members of the medical team and your input should be encouraged. By sharing observations, you can provide the right details to ensure an accurate diagnosis and treatment if there is something wrong—which could range from a heart problem or learning disability, to anxiety or depression. If you’re not sure of a symptom, or something appears off with your child, seek a second opinion and simply use common sense to guide you forward.
The most important thing you can do as a parent is help guide your child to success, and these are just a few ways to start.
Kurt Newman, M.D., is president and CEO of Children’s National Health System. He and his wife, a neonatal nurse practitioner, are the parents of two grown sons and have lived and worked in the Washington, D.C., area for over 30 years. The paperback edition of Dr. Newman’s medical memoir, Healing Children, is now available.