Summer is over, and it’s “Back-to-School” time! For many parents, it’s a sad end to the togetherness of summer, but it’s also a welcome return to the normal routine of the school year. Some parents will be sending their children off to many of their “firsts” like pre-school, kindergarten, middle and high school, while some parents will be facing some of their “lasts” of these same milestones. Regardless of where your child falls, all parents need to think about starting the school year off right, so that your child can have the healthiest experience and maximize their potential for a successful school year. It has been shown that success in school begins at home. This is why establishing schedules for mealtimes, exercise, homework and sleep is so important. Especially since as a child gets older, the more complicated and overextended their day becomes, and fitting everything in becomes a challenge for everyone.

Scheduling Mealtimes

Healthy eating starts in infancy. Without even realizing it, many parents create picky eaters by not understanding that a child may not be hungry at every meal. We don’t have to “give them what they want, so they at least eat something.” Very soon, “that’s all they want, so that’s what they get” becomes the norm, and the vicious cycle continues until the child eats 4-5 things – but those things are chicken fingers, mac & cheese, or hotdogs – to name a few. From the start, providing your child with a variety of healthy foods including fruits and veggies, whole grains, chicken, fish, and lean meat, while eating together as a family as much as possible, and modeling a healthy diet, will all be invaluable to your child as they grow up.

Importance of Exercise

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one hour of aerobic activity per day for children of all ages. This can be running around on a playground to participating in team sports. However, we know the challenge is when your child dislikes sports or exercise. As with everything, modeling behavior can make a difference. You most likely get your child to “move” easier if you do it with them. Of course, schedules aren’t always conducive or practical to allow an hour a day, but as with everything, do your best and let your child know that this is an important aspect of a healthy life.

Doing Homework Together

The love of learning starts at an early age. Many studies show that there is a huge amount of value of reading to your child from a very young age. No matter your own level of education, reading to your child is a bonding experience as well as an opportunity to grow their vocabulary and their interest in the world around them. It is said that children spend the early years of their lives learning to read, and the rest of their lives reading to learn! Once your child is old enough to have homework, try to have a designated quiet space and time for your child to do their work. Help them when you can, but don’t do it for them. Consider sitting down with them and read your own book, pay your bills, or other work you may have while they do their homework. This will help model a strong work ethic, and the understanding that learning is a lifetime endeavor.

Prioritizing Sleep

Different ages require different amounts of sleep, but as with everything, a lifetime of good habits starts early. On average, toddlers need 12 hours of sleep with 1-2 naps, 3–5-year-olds need 10 hours of sleep with an occasional nap, 6–12-year-olds need 9-10 hours of sleep, and 13–18-year-olds need 9 hours of sleep. Sleep training your infant, and then having consistent rules as they are older, will be the building blocks for healthy sleep habits into adulthood. The challenge for families of teens is having to fit in at least 9 hours of sleep when there are other factors at play like school, extracurricular activities, and homework. Children who don’t sleep well at night will not be as capable the next day to learn in school, creating a disadvantage as they navigate the increasing demands of the older grade levels.

So, what are other important factors for a successful school year? Keeping your child healthy, showing interest in their school life, stressing safety, and making good choices are all integral to your child’s success.

Keeping Your Child Healthy

In order to keep your child healthy, make sure they see their pediatrician for regular check-ups once a year and that they are fully immunized against all vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccine hesitancy is now responsible for a possible resurgence of diseases that were once thought eradicated in this country – such as measles and polio. Besides the routine childhood vaccinations for school entry, vaccination against Influenza is equally important. During the 2019-2020 flu season, the last one prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 7.5 million influenza illnesses, 105,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 6,300 influenza-associated deaths. One study found that Influenza vaccination helped reduce life-threating influenza illness in children by 75% compared to the years before.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of the value of vaccines. One study estimated that almost 20 million deaths were prevented worldwide in the first year after the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine. Similarly, another study estimated that more than 320,000 deaths in the United States and 30,000 deaths in Florida were everted by vaccination. More than 40,000 children have been admitted to hospital in the United States for COVID-19 related illnesses, and almost 1,500 have died from this disease. This is a significant proportion without any underlying risk factors. It has been clearly shown that the benefits far outweigh the risks, and children should be vaccinated against both of these potentially devastating illnesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed everyone the value of mitigation factors such as masks, handwashing, and quarantining when ill or during the incubation period. Although masks are no longer mandated, there are still situations where they should be worn as a public health courtesy to others – or to protect the wearer if desired. Teaching your child to frequently wash their hands, cover their mouth and nose with coughs and sneezes, and not sending a child to school at the beginning of an illness or until they are fever free (without Tylenol or Motrin) for 24-48 hours, are all lessons that should be reinforced to keep all of our children healthier.

Show an interest in your child’s school

Parents can show their children they are fully committed to being there for them by meeting their teachers, attending back to school nights, PTA meetings, and other school functions for parents. Your interest in your child’s school will reinforce to them the importance of their education and your role in their success.

Understanding the Safety of Children

It’s important for parents to be involved with their children’s safety both in and out of school. At home, if you’re a gun owner or take medications, make sure both are locked up and inaccessible to your child. Don’t let your child ride in a car without using an age-appropriate restraining device such as a carseat, booster or seatbelt. Another important safety lesson is making sure your child knows how to swim. In Florida alone, more than 200 children have drowned over the past year.

Be a Role Model for Your Children

Lastly, reinforce these safety and healthy rules by setting the example about making good choice. Always show your children that you take care of yourself and your family, and that you treat others in a respectful way. It’s most important to try your best rather than having to be the best!

Dr. Robin Straus Furlong is a proud member of the TopLine MD Alliance practicing pediatrics in Miami-Dade County.

The TopLine MD Alliance is an association of independent physicians and medical practice groups who are committed to providing a higher standard of healthcare services. The members of the TopLine MD Alliance have no legal or financial relationship with one another. The TopLine MD Alliance brand has no formal corporate, financial or legal ties to any of the affiliated physicians or practice groups.