Many things change quickly as summer ends and the academic year beings, which can cause difficulties for parents and students without having a plan. Christopher Martindale, MD, UC Health family physician, shares his recommendations for a healthy start to the school year.
Preparing Good Habits and Daily Routines for a Healthy School Year
Getting back on a daily routine will create habits, and therefore will reduce the time needed to think and plan everything out, which can reduce stress.
Build A Sleep Routine for School
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommend that children ages six to 12 require a minimum of nine hours of sleep, and that adolescents need a minimum of eight hours of sleep. Even if children are getting this many hours of sleep during the summer, bedtimes and wake times often shift at the beginning of the school year. It is best to start adjusting to a schooltime schedule with the recommended hours of sleep well before the school year starts to prevent negative effects on health, behavior and school performance.
Create a Bedtime Routine
Establish a set of routines to help your student wind down for a good night's sleep and recharge for the next day.
A routine can be as simple as taking a bath or reading a book before bed. It should be relaxing and should help your student transition from daytime activities to preparation for sleep. The routine should be followed every night so that your student’s body knows it is time to sleep.
If you are having trouble getting your student to establish or follow through with a bedtime routine, consider setting up a reward system. For example, after completing the nightly routine, the child gets to pick out a book to read or an activity to do for 30 minutes before lights out. After following the routine for several nights, you can start phasing out the reward system.
Limiting Electronic Devices and Screen Time
Recreational screen time, such as gaming, browsing TikTok or watching YouTube videos, is often less regulated in the summer and can be a contributor to inadequate sleep. The AAP suggests limiting entertainment-related screen time to a maximum of two hours per day. Plans and rules around recreational screen time for the school year should be created and communicated before the start of the year.
It is also important to limit screen use before bed, as screens can stimulate the brain and make it harder to fall asleep. The AAP recommends absolutely no screen time for children ages six and younger, one hour or less for children ages seven to 12 and two hours or less for adolescents.
Create a Before School Morning Routine
Creating a morning routine prior to the start of the academic year will help your student prepare for the day ahead.
A morning routine might look like this:
- Wake up at the same time every day.
- Eat a nutritious breakfast.
- Have school supplies and backpack ready the night before.
- Dress for success in clothes that are comfortable and appropriate for the weather.
- Brush teeth and comb hair.
- Make sure lunch is prepared.
- Set out any items needed for after-school activities.
Healthy Meal Planning for the School Year
Make a meal plan, whether it be at school or at home, as studies suggest that kids get several benefits from eating a nutritious breakfast and from eating regularly throughout the day.
“Find out what is offered at school and plan accordingly,” Dr. Martindale suggested. “Many schools have information on their website regarding menu options and how to qualify for meal benefits.”
Here are some tips to help get a meal plan together before the school year starts:
- Create a system that takes care of nutritional necessities like macronutrients and food groups. Create a few meals that encompass all the necessities for protein, carbs, fiber and fruits and vegetables, or try to determine how these necessities fit into the foods offered at school lunch.
- Determine the best option for your student to stay hydrated throughout the day. Water is always the best choice, but sometimes kids need more flavor or variety to stay interested. If your student doesn’t like plain water, try adding fruit or vegetable slices, herbs or even sparkling water.
- Prepare simple and healthy snacks and meals ahead of time that can be easily grabbed and eaten on the go. This could include hard-boiled eggs, whole grain muffins, trail mix or granola bars.
By following these meal planning tips, you can help your student have a healthy and successful school year!
Incentivize Exercise and Physical Activity
It is important to get children moving and exercising every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), kids should participate in 60 minutes of physical activity each day. This can be a combination of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, like running or playing soccer, and muscle-strengthening activities, like climbing or doing push-ups.
One way to help kids meet their daily exercise goals is to create an incentive system. For example, if your student exercises for 30 minutes each day, they can earn a point for each day. Once they reach 20 points, they can cash them in for something of value, like a toy or activity.
Another way to incentivize exercise is by signing your student up for a sport or an activity that they enjoy. The more they enjoy it, the more likely they’ll stick with it. Doing this will not only help earn their daily exercise, but it will also teach them teamwork, discipline and other important life skills.
Exercise habits start at home
Find physical activities that the family can do together. Take regular walks or bike rides on weekends, after dinner or any other time you can find to exercise with your student.
To get children moving, adults need to model the behavior. If parents make physical activity a priority, kids are more likely to do the same. Family activities could be anything from playing tag in the backyard, taking a dance class together or shooting hoops in the driveway or at the local park.
Making physical activity a part of your family’s daily routine will help create healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
Explore sports, clubs and activity groups your student’s school has to offer that can be a part of their daily physical routine.
Some things to keep in mind when looking for a sport or activity for your student:
- Choose a sport or activity in which your student is interested - if they’re not interested, they’re not going to want to stick with it. Look for activities that are age appropriate; for younger children, try basketball, t-ball or soccer. Older kids might enjoy running, swimming or tennis.
- Make sure the activity is developmentally appropriate. This means that it’s not too easy or too difficult for your student. If it’s too easy, they might get bored; but if it’s too hard, they could become frustrated and give up.
There are many benefits to kids being active and involved in sports and other activities. Not only will it help them stay physically fit, but it can also boost their self-esteem, teach them teamwork and social skills, and provide them with a sense of belonging. So, explore the options, and find an activity that your student will enjoy—there is something for everyone.
Build Communication and Trust
Some students are starting school for the very first time, which can be an exciting and scary time for both parents and children. It is important to build a strong foundation of communication and trust with your student, so that everyone can have a healthy and successful school year.
- Get Involved in your Student’s Education. One of the best ways to support your student’s education is to be involved in their schooling. This could mean attending parent-teacher conferences, volunteering in the classroom or chaperoning field trips. By getting involved, you’re showing your student that you care about their education and want to be part of their success. In addition, this will also give you the opportunity to meet their teachers and learn more about their everyday routine at school.
- Create a Homework Space. Setting up a designated homework space in your home can help your student stay organized and on top of their assignments. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just a small desk or table in a quiet area of the house where they can focus. Having all their supplies readily available will also cut down on distractions and help them stay on task.
- Set Expectations and Rules Early On. It’s important to set expectations and rules early on so that your student knows what is expected. This could include things like homework rules, a set bedtime or screen time limits. By having these conversations early, you can avoid power struggles down the road and establish a routine that works for everyone.
- Be There for Them. One of the most important things you can do is to be there for your student, both emotionally and physically. This means being available to listen to concerns, help with homework and just spend time together. Let them know that you are always there for them no matter what.
- One-on-One Time. If you have multiple students in your household, make one-on-one time for each. Kids talk more freely during one-on-one time with a guardian. Engaging in the conversation will help further build trust.
- Watch for Bullying. Talk with your student about their experiences at school. This will help establish that students are happy, feeling safe and if there is something of concern, like bullying.
- Anger Management. Help your student understand the right ways to handle anger. Fighting, aggression and violence aren’t the answer in any situation—help your student to remain calm and to talk out problems instead of fighting, and when it’s appropriate to seek an adult.
Schedule a Well-Child Visit With Your Healthcare Provider
Address and plan for health concerns or potential problems before the school year starts.
“This may seem intuitive,” Dr. Martindale said, “but it is easy to wait until significant problems arise before seeing a provider. Instead, if there are any possible concerns, it is best to work with your primary care provider before the school year starts.”
Talk About Your Student's Physical and Mental Development
Being open about your student’s development will help to ensure that any potential problems are caught early and that your student is on track developmentally.
Your student’s doctor can also provide guidance on how to best support your student as they grow and develop. This could include things like nutrition, physical activity and social-emotional development. By having these conversations early on, you can set your student up for success both now and in the future.
Get Recommended Vaccinations
Make sure your student is up to date on all recommended immunizations.
It is important for guardians to have a conversation with their students about staying healthy. The flu can be deadly, so getting the flu vaccine is highly encouraged.
A flu shot is recommended for everyone six months of age and older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people get their flu shots by the end of October, but getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial.
Dr. Martindale recommends parents talk to their students about other ways to stay healthy and avoid preventable diseases during cold and flu season, such as:
- Washing hands regularly and often.
- Avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Covering coughs and sneezes.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
- Staying home when sick and until fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that may be contaminated with germs.
"If kids do get sick, they should see a doctor," Dr. Martindale said. "I recommend monitoring for signs of secondary infection that would require a visit to their pediatrician. Specifically, if they're not getting better after five to seven days, or if they have a high fever for more than three days, those are signs it's time to seek medical attention.” Discuss how to manage emergencies and illnesses.
No one wants to think about their child being sick or injured, but it's important to have a plan in place in case of an emergency.
"Parents should sit down with their kids and talk about what to do if they get sick or hurt," Dr. Martindale explained. "They should have a list of emergency contacts, as well as a plan for who will pick them up from school or daycare if they're not feeling well."
It's also important to discuss what to do in the event of a more serious injury or illness. If your student has a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes, make sure they know how to manage it and when to seek help.
"If you have an action plan for your student’s chronic condition, share it with their teachers and school nurses," Dr. Martindale sai.d "That way, everyone is on the same page and knows what to do in an emergency."
By having these conversations and being prepared, you can help keep your student safe and healthy all year long.
“While parents are certainly the experts on how to manage their own households, I feel that these tips can help parents and students have a healthy and positive start to the school year," Dr. Martindale said.
Primary care physicians, like Dr. Martindale, offer in-person visits as well as virtual visit options. To schedule an appointment with UC Health Primary Care, call 513-475-8001. New patients are always welcome.