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Help your kids have a healthy and happy school year

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These tips will help your child have a healthy and successful year right from day one.

The new school year arrives bursting with possibilities. New things to learn. New friends. All kinds of new experiences. As parents, we focus on how to help our kids have a smooth transition from summer break to the classroom. But you can also go a step further. You can set your child up for success throughout the year.

One way to do that? Make sure your kiddos get enough shut-eye. “Perhaps the most important element of your child’s health [and happiness] is sleep,” says Michael Karp, MD. He’s an Optum pediatrician in Vista, California. It doesn’t matter if your child is a kindergartener or a rising senior in high school. Children of all ages need enough rest to be healthy and confident. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests:

  • 9 to 12 hours a night for kids ages 6 –12
  • 8 to 10 for teens1

To help you and your child start the year strong, we’ve rounded up more tips that you can put into action at the doctor’s office, at home and at school. 

Back-to-school tips for grade-schoolers

At the doctor:

  • Schedule a well-child visit if you haven’t already. An annual physical will make sure your child is growing properly. This is literally a head-to-toe checkup. Your pediatrician will likely weigh and measure your child. They will also check your child’s blood pressure, eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Your doctor will discuss your kiddo’s eating and exercise habits. They will also check for developmental and social concerns.2

  • Review your child’s vaccines. The AAP and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend childhood vaccines at certain ages.3 “All kids should be vaccinated according to these recommendations,” Dr. Karp says. You can look at the CDC schedule here. Missed a shot? The CDC offers a catch-up schedule as well.

    Early fall is the perfect time to get your child’s annual flu shot.3 (Download free coupons that can help you save on flu shots for the whole family.) The COVID-19 vaccine and booster is also recommended for children age 5 and up.3

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At home:

  • Boost your child’s immunity. Everyone gets colds and tummy bugs. But your child may be better able to fight off illnesses if their immune system is in tip-top shape.

    “If your child is eating a well-balanced diet including lots of fruits and vegetables, their immune system should be just fine,” Dr. Karp says. If they’re not the greatest eater, consider a children’s multivitamin. “Make sure the label offers 100% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins,” Dr. Karp says.

At school:

  • Know that school isn’t always awesome (and that’s OK). “School is challenging in many ways,” says Christine M. Nicholson, PhD. She’s a child psychologist in Kirkland, Washington. There are going to be great times during your child’s school year. But there will also be some difficult and sad times. There might even be times your child doesn’t want to go to school.

    “Kids can understand that it’s important to push through difficult times and be encouraged to do so. This can build a sense of resiliency and positive self-esteem,” says Nicholson. If your child needs help getting through a rocky period, touch base with the school psychologist or your doctor.

  • Teach your kids to wash their hands regularly to stay healthy. To help keep their hands clean throughout the school day, include hand sanitizer or wipes in your child’s backpack.

Mental health memo:

  • Give a kid a break. Got a stressed out, exhausted or moody kid on your hands? They might simply need a break. “Parents should give kids occasional mental health breaks during the school year,” says Nicholson. “Mental health is just as important as physical health,” she says. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of afterschool activities. But too many playdates and birthday parties can also overload a kid’s schedule.

    The solution: Schedule in some unstructured time. Plan a weekend day for your family to play board games, bake or go on a hike together. Or let your kids have a day of unstructured play to help ease stress and recharge their batteries.

Good to know:

Review your safety routines. “In the United States, more kids die from accidents than from disease,” Dr. Karp says. Make sure your child wears a bike helmet and a seat belt. And if they walk to school, make sure they know how to safely cross the street. Follow these tips from SafeKids Worldwide4:

  • If your child has a phone, make sure they keep it in their backpack, not in their hand.
  • Always cross at the corner or at a designated crossing walk or area.
  • Look left, right and then left before you cross. And keep watching until you’re on the other side.
  • If there’s no sidewalk, walk facing traffic as far from cars as possible.
  • If a car is coming, make eye contact with the driver before moving.

Back-to-school tips for middle-schoolers

At the doctor:

  • Be prepared to leave the exam room for a few minutes. Many doctors use this time to talk about topics that kids might feel uncomfortable talking about in front of their parents. That said, never feel shy in bringing up issues with friends, social media and tech safety or sex.

  • Talk about personal hygiene. The doctor can give tips on bathing, using deodorant and acne. Plus, they can tackle any questions about puberty and/or periods.(Stock up on all your kids' health essentials at the Optum Store. Shop now.)

  • Ask about sports physicals.5 Some states, schools or sports programs might ask for a separate physical or form so that your child can play sports. Even if you don’t need an extra form, ask for a copy of the signed, completed physical to have on hand.

  • Ask if the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is right for your child. The HPV vaccine is recommended for children at age 11 or 12.3 It can help prevent cervical, throat and other cancers.6 While you’re there, don’t forget to ask about these other shots, says Dr. Karp:
    • Tdap (tetanus, diptheria and pertussis)
    • Meningitis
    • Flu
    • COVID

At home:

  • Help puberty feel normal. Talk to your children about the changes that will take place in their bodies. And try to do it before it starts. “Puberty does intensify feelings in adolescents,” says Nicholson. That said, don’t let hormones be an excuse for difficult behavior. Reply to your moody child by saying something like, “Wow, you seem upset. Let’s take a 20-minute break and then try to talk about it.”

At school:

  • Support your kid’s academics. “The workload is much different in middle school. And it’s a transition to change classes and have different teachers,” Dr. Karp says. Help your child with strategies to make staying organized easier. Color-coded notebooks and folders can help a lot. Show your child how to keep an assignment book. Encourage your kids to ask their teachers for extra help if they don’t understand. Reassure your child that they can come to you if they’re struggling.

Mental health memo:

  • Talk, talk and talk some more. “Middle school is a tough time for kids,” says Dr. Karp. “They’re trying to figure out who they are. Their bodies are changing. They’re starting to get a little rebellious.” Talk to your kids about your day and ask about theirs. Even if you get little back, keep talking. “That way, when there are issues, the kids know that they can come to you,” Dr. Karp says.

Good to know:

  • Focus on safety. If you have a gun in your home, lock it up if it’s not already. If you take medication, make sure that it's securely locked away, too. “The suicide rate among 10- to 12-year-olds is up,7 and you want to keep your child safe,” Nicholson says. Signs that your child might be depressed or wanting to self-harm include changes in sleep or eating patterns. Also keep an eye out if your tween’s grades or friends suddenly drop off. 8 If you’re worried your child might hurt themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or just dial 988.

Back-school-tips for high schoolers

At the doctor:

  • Keep up with checkups. Your big kid still needs to see the doctor. And if you haven’t been asked to leave before now, you very likely will be. That’s OK. It helps your child begin to have their own relationship with their doctor.

  • Address important questions or concerns that you might have as a parent. This includes drinking, smoking or vaping, drugs, sexual activity, and depression.2 Your doctor can help you navigate these tough conversations.

  • Ask about shots. Your doctor may also recommend a meningitis booster around age 16.3 Meningitis is a potentially life-threatening infection of the brain, spinal cord or blood.

    Flu and COVID? Still on the recommended list, too.

At home:

  • Manage social media. “Academics become much more important in high school,” says Fred Medway, PhD. He’s a psychologist in Columbia, South Carolina. “Yet texting and social media platforms like TikTok and SnapChat tend to be much more important to the kids.”

    Set limits at the start of the school year to ensure that everyone is happier and healthier. Check your parental control options on devices. And don’t forget to set them within apps and platforms for safe monitoring. Encourage your teen to get involved with real-life activities like sports, after-school clubs or hobbies.

    Sometimes, teens post their intentions to commit a crime or self-harm on social media. Remind your kids that if they see something worrisome on social media sites or hear about it at school, they should tell a trusted adult. “Teach your kids that they shouldn’t keep secrets when someone’s life is in danger,” says Nicholson. Look for signs of depression and anxiety in your own kids.

  • Watch for drug use. Did you catch them cheating or lying? Or do they seem withdrawn, depressed or angry? These could be signs of possible drug use. This is especially true if you also notice a change in your child’s behavior, mood or grades.8

    “Make sure that your medications are not accessible to your teen,” says Dr. Karp. If you suspect that your child might be using drugs, talk to them and express your concerns. If your child denies doing drugs, watch their behavior and look for clues. You can also check their room.9 If you’re not sure what to say or how to get your child help, speak with your pediatrician to get advice on next steps.

At school:

  • Dial back their schedule. It seems so important to have your kid involved in everything from sports to volunteering. But then we expect them to do all these activities while also getting great grades. “Overscheduled kids are stressed out,” says Dr. Karp. “There’s no shame in doing less if it maintains your mental health,” says Nicholson. Give your kids permission to opt out of activities if they seem overloaded.

Mental health memo:

  • Talk about relationships and sex. High school kids begin to experiment and explore their own sexuality. It’s all part of growing up. “Talk to your kids about birth control, abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases before they’re having sex,” Dr. Karp says. It’s normal if you’re not comfortable talking about this with your kids. But it’s important to try. If you need some help, ask your pediatrician or a trusted friend to step in.

Good to know:

  • Model how to deal with stress. As a parent, it’s important that you show your child how to deal with stress in a healthy way.  Just because something is stressful doesn’t mean you can act out or take it out on others. Allow your child to see you take responsibility for your circumstances. “Setting a good example can help your child be a more accountable, resilient and less stressed individual,” says Dr. Karp. 

SOURCES

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy sleep habits: How many hours does your child need? November 16, 2020. Accessed June 21, 2022
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP Schedule of Well-Child Care Visits. September 15, 2021. Accessed July 14, 2022.
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Immunizations. July 27, 2021. Accessed June 20, 2022.
  4. SafeKids Worldwide. Things you need to know as you head back to school. N.D. Accessed June 28, 2022.
  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Sports physical: When, where, who should do it? August 3, 2021. Accessed July 14, 2022
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reasons to get the HPV vaccine. Last reviewed November 10, 2021. Accessed July 18, 2022.
  7. JAMA Pediatrics. Changes in suicidal ingestion among preadolescent children from 2000 to 2020.cs March 14, 2022. Accessed June 21, 2021.
  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Mental health and teens: Watch for danger signs. May 23, 2022. Accessed July 14, 2022.
  9. Partnership to End Addiction. What do I do if my child is using drugs? Last updated March 2022. Accessed June 28, 2022.

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