Within the next several weeks, students across the country will be returning to elementary or high school classrooms or heading off to college campuses where they’ll be exposed to exciting academic challenges, inspirational teachers, stimulating social opportunities, and a host of issues impacting their health and well being. Because success in school depends so heavily on regular class attendance and active participation, it’s vital for students of all ages to take steps to avoid getting sick and to maximize their energy and enthusiasm. They include:
Get appropriate immunizations and checkups
Communicable diseases can spread very rapidly through student populations, so ensuring that your student has received all appropriate vaccinations prior to beginning school is paramount. If you aren’t sure which vaccines are required or recommended, check with your child’s pediatrician, the school, or your local health department. And don’t forget the flu vaccine, which is typically available beginning in September.
In addition to immunizations, make sure your child receives a routine health checkup and any appropriate screenings to monitor his or her development and detect any potential problems that could interfere with school performance. Routine vision and hearing screenings are particularly important, as these senses are so closely linked to learning.
Regular dental checkups are also essential. While dental hygiene may seem insignificant compared to good vision and hearing, problems affecting the mouth and teeth are actually a major cause of school absenteeism.
Communicate health concerns with school staff
If your child has any allergies or other health concerns, it’s very important to communicate those concerns to the school staff at the beginning of the year—particularly if the health issue is potentially life-threatening, such as an allergy to a particular food or insect sting that can cause anaphylaxis. Make sure all necessary medications (e.g., self-inject epinephrine) are available at school and that the staff is fully apprised of any special needs or physical limitations your child may have, any symptoms they should be aware of, and how they should respond in the event of an emergency. Also, if your home address, work phone number, or pediatrician has recently changed, be sure to update your medical and emergency contact information with the school.
Don’t skip breakfast
Studies have shown that students who start the day with a healthy, nutritious breakfast perform better in school than those who either skip this important meal or limit what they eat to foods that are laden with sugar or high in saturated fat. Students who are serious about learning should forego the sugary cereals, powdered doughnuts, bacon, and sausage in favor of a breakfast rich in protein from lean meats, eggs, nuts, and low-fat dairy and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This combination will keep students feeling full, satiated, and alert while preventing the blood sugar spike and crash that leaves them feeling tired and irritable by mid-morning.
Sleep on it!
A good night’s sleep is one of the most useful tools students of any age can take into the classroom. Students who get a proper amount of restful sleep each night enjoy a higher energy level, greater alertness, sharper memory and concentration, greater emotional stability, better immune function, and many other benefits. Unfortunately, owing to influences such as late-night cramming and the presence of TVs, smart phones, tablets, computers, and other technology in the bedroom, few students actually get the sleep they need in order to perform at their best in school. What’s more, students often abandon good sleeping habits entirely over the summer months.
To get back on track before school starts, students should begin going to bed a little bit earlier every night until their normal school-time sleep schedule is resumed. Of course, with younger students, this process will have to be enforced by parents.
How much sleep is sufficient? Experts recommend at least ten hours of sleep per night for school-age children and a minimum of seven to eight hours each night for college students.
Watch out for weight gain
Nowadays, excess body weight has become a concern for students of virtually every age. To keep weight-gain at bay, it’s encouraged to get at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity on most days of the week. Organized sports are a great way to incorporate regular exercise into a student’s day, but for those who aren’t athletically inclined, doing something as simple as walking or riding a bike to school every day instead of being driven by car or bus (if practical) can make all the difference.
First-year collage students are particularly vulnerable to weight gain because for the first time in their lives, they’re solely responsible for their personal choices—including the foods they put in their mouths. That fact coupled with other factors, such as new, more stressful academic demands, all-night study sessions, and a dramatically different social environment, can lead to some very poor nutritional choices and weight gain—the dreaded “freshman 15.”
If the cost of tuition includes access to a campus fitness center, take advantage of it to get regular exercise. If that’s not an option, consider joining an intramural sports team or simply walking, jogging, or biking around campus. Above all, it’s important to sit down and map out a healthy eating plan each week and then stock your dorm refrigerator with nutritious meal and snack options so you don’t have to rely on convenience foods, which tend to be high in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.
The legal drinking age in the state of Ohio is 21. Nonetheless, many high school and college students (and, tragically, a growing number of students still in elementary school) choose to drink alcohol before they reach legal age. It’s important to educate students about the potential health risks of alcohol use.
In the short term, alcohol consumption affects reaction time, judgment, balance, and memory, which adversely affects academic and athletic performance, increases the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle accident, and increases the likelihood of making other unhealthy lifestyle decisions, such as engaging in unprotected sex. Long-term alcohol use increases the risk of organ damage, brain disorders, and a wide range of chronic diseases, including certain cancers. Alcohol use also interferes with sleep patterns and can lead to weight gain. Moreover, drinking alcohol puts the individual at risk of developing an addiction. The best advice for students with respect to alcohol use is to avoid it altogether.
Don’t ignore stress
It’s perfectly normal for a student to experience stress and anxiety at the start of a new year, especially if he or she is changing schools—for example, making the transition from high school to college. However, stress or anxiety that persists well beyond the transitional period is not normal and may signify a more serious problem. Left untreated, it can exact a heavy toll on the student’s physical and emotional health. In severe cases, stress can lead to depression or even suicide.
If you observe symptoms of stress or anxiety in your child after the first few weeks of school, don’t ignore it. Discuss what’s going on in school and how the new situation is making him or her feel. Through conversation, you may learn that there’s an underlying problem, such as bullying. If you can’t resolve the problem through communication, you should address it with your child’s pediatrician.
The issue of stress can be more complicated for college students who are removed from their normal family support system. College students who experience unresolved stress may want to take advantage of on-campus counseling services to prevent the problem from spiraling out of control.❦