It is back to school time and every year there are numerous publications and news reports discussing how to keep kids healthy in the school setting, especially during cold and flu season. As a RN and a mother, I am in total agreement of all of those – especially flu shots, hand washing and only using antibiotics if absolutely necessary. Here though, I would like to discuss 5 other back to school health topics that really apply to everyday health for kids and adults and should not be put on the back burner.
Psychological health: One of the most important topics affecting our children’s overall health, behavior and academic performance is their psychological health. It is no secret that our world can be a scary place. The reality is, the world has always been that way in one form or another. However, as technology continues to provide us with immediate connections to anything and everything, there is a tendency to get caught up in the tragedy and negativity. This is particularly impactful on children who do not have the capacity to understand why some of these events occur. The constant bombardment from the TV and internet can cause increased anxiety, fear and behavioral changes. Creating a positive and engaged environment including outside play reviewing and assisting with school work and regular family time without TV or other electronic devices will help children feel valued and more confident.
We also need to be mindful of our own behaviors as adults. Children learn by imitating what they observe. We have to get away from the adage of “do what I say, not as I do.” We all have habits and traits that we are not proud of. I can’t tell you how often I see some of these traits in my own kids and feel so guilty that I have passed that along. Consider learning and practicing Conscious Discipline. Conscious Discipline teaches adults and children how to manage real life situations with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is understanding one’s own feelings, emotions and responses and also that of others around us. It helps us to be more cognizant of how others approach and respond to situations so that we can communicate and interact more effectively.
Psychological fitness is just as important as physical fitness. In fact, without psychological wellness, the drive to be physically healthy will be much more challenging. We are seeing an astonishing rate of psychological disorders and issues in younger individuals. Providing children with the emotional and behavioral tools they need from a young age will help them to be psychologically fit and set them up for success in a competitive and challenging world.
Backpacks: The backpack is one of the most important accessories to a school age child. There are some important things to consider when choosing a backpack. Backpacks that are too heavy or worn improperly can lead to significant issues with muscles, joints and nerves. The core muscles in the back and abdomen along with the spine support the entire body. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids should not be carrying any more than 10-20% of their own body weight. For example, an elementary student weighing 65 lbs should not be carrying a backpack greater than 6 ½ to 13 lbs. Carrying too much weight every day can cause muscle and joint strain and poor posture which can lead to back pain and headaches. The increased weight can even interrupt blood flow causing numbness and tingling in the arms and hands. Experiencing these symptoms can be very distracting and may interrupt a child’s ability to focus and learn.
Research has shown that back pain is the number one reason for disability worldwide. At least $50 billion per year in the US is spent to treat back pain. With staggering statistics like this, we have a responsibility to protect our children’s developing bodies when they are young to help prevent long-term chronic issues in adulthood. Chronic back pain usually results from a long time of poor posture and body movements. The appropriately weighted backpack should have wide padded straps that are worn on both shoulders. The bottom of the bag should rest right at the child’s waist. Watch how your child walks with the backpack in place. If they cannot comfortably walk without leaning forward or to the side, the bag is not appropriate for their use.
Sleep: We hear all the time how important sleep is. With homework and after school activities, sometimes it can be hard to focus on a steady sleep routine or even ensuring enough sleep for your child. Adequate sleep helps the brain process what it has learned in a day and develop and grow neurologic building blocks for the next day. Focus, creativity, ability to process and retain information and one’s emotions are all affected by sleep. Sleep also affects physical health as well. Hormones that control hunger and blood sugar are regulated during sleep cycles. When one does not get enough sleep the risk for obesity and diabetes increases.
Eye Strain: This is an issues that can be easily overlooked or misinterpreted as something else such as ADHD. Just like every other part of the body, the eyes are growing and developing during childhood years. Children develop at different paces and this includes their eye development. The school environment though is fairly standard and as children move up in grade levels, the demands on the eyes becomes greater. Eye strain comes from all of the visual stimulation in classrooms playgrounds and electronic devices. Quoted from the Vision Council, “76.5 percent of Americans report their child(ren) – those under the age of 18 – gets more than two hours of screen time per day. And 55.6 percent report their child(ren) experiences one of the following after being exposed to more than two hours of screen time:”
Eye strain, dry or irritated eyes
Reduced attention span
Here are some recommendations to prevent and /or address eye strain:
Regular yearly eye exams
Limit screen time to 2 hours per day
Take breaks when reading
Consider protective eyewear that helps with the lights associated with digital eye strain
Dental Health: Clean mouths and teeth are also vital to overall health and maintaining a strong immune system. According to the CDC, “About 1 of 5 (20%) children aged 5 to 11 years have at least one untreated decayed tooth.” When children have poor dental hygiene leading to tooth decay and cavities, their overall health and development can be impacted. Bacteria that causes decay and cavities can spread to the jaw and face causing infections that may require IV antibiotics or surgery. Infections can also spread to other parts of the body including the heart which can also lead to the need for a hospital stay. Bad teeth will impact a child’s ability to chew which could contribute to an unhealthy diet. We also need our teeth to speak properly. Children with decay or cavities may experience a lack of confidence or self-esteem which could lead to poor psychological health as discussed above. Simply two minutes of brushing twice a day can impact the health of your child significantly.
I hope this has helped you as you are doing 10,000 other things to prepare for back to school. I would love to hear from you if you have any other tips on back to school health. Thanks so much!