Heading back to school signals more than the end of summer and a change of seasons. It means health-related changes for every student’s day-to-day existence.

Sleep patterns change. Diets change. Students may face new physical and mental challenges. They can also come into contact with scores of new acquaintances, increasing the likelihood they’ll be exposed to illnesses that do spread more quickly in packs. All it takes is a sneeze in a classroom to spray infected respiratory droplets that can spread a cold.

Let’s face it, no matter how careful the parent, every kid is susceptible to catching a cold or virus now and then.  The trick is to limit the exposure to nasty germs or other factors that can lead to discomfort, pain, and, ultimately, a lack of focus on studies. While keeping children safe and healthy is always a major concern, it’s imperative when it comes to students operating at full efficiency in a learning environment.

With the school year just around the corner,  here are ten things a parent can do to help ensure a child’s back-to-school health and help maximize the educational experience.

1. Make Sure Vaccinations are Up to Date

Infants and toddlers have likely already been immunized to prevent the spread of many diseases such as polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, hepatitis A & B, and possibly chicken pox. But older children require additional vaccinations or boosters to protect them and future generations. For example, a polio booster is generally in order for children ages four to six.

In all cases, you should consult your family physician for guidance on the proper immunization schedule. The National Institute of Health recommends the following vaccinations for students aged 11 and older:

  •  Influenza (flu) vaccine: to protect against different strains of seasonal influenza. A yearly dose is recommended for everyone six months and older.
  • Tdap: A booster to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). Recommended for preteens (11–12), as well as any teens (13–18) who haven’t had this shot.
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4): Protects against meningococcal disease. First dose is recommended at age 11 or 12 followed by a booster (2nd shot) at age 16–18.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine: Protects against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. HPV vaccine is given in three doses over a six-month period to boys and girls starting at 11–12 years old.

2. Teach Proper Health Habits

Children rely on their parents to learn the basics about disease prevention. That includes everything from blowing their nose to washing their hands.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compares washing hands to a “do-it-yourself vaccine.” Their experts say, “Keeping hands clean through improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”

The CDC instructs children to wet their hands with warm water, work up a soapy lather, scrub for at least 20 seconds, rinse, then dry. To maintain the cleanliness, it’s a good idea to turn off the tap with a paper towel and use that same towel on door handles when exiting a public restroom.

Children should wash their hands after using the toilet, blowing their nose, touching pets, touching often-shared equipment such as computers, or when they come in from playing outdoors.

According to the Mayo Clinic: “Frequent hand-washing is one of the simplest—and most effective—ways to stay healthy in school. Keeping a child’s hands away from their mouth and eyes is equally important.”

Students should be instructed to cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze and to keep their hands out of their mouth and away from their eyes. If the student can’t access a tissue in time to catch a cough or sneeze, the Mayo Clinic suggests they should do so into the crook of their elbow.

Another lesson: sharing is nice, but it’s not always healthy. Students should avoid sharing water bottles, bites of food or other personal items such as lip balm. “Offer your child this simple rule,” suggests the Mayo Clinic. “If you put the item in your mouth, keep it to yourself.”

3. Supply the Necessities

Sometimes soap and water are not an option. Children should then have access to hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Provide hand sanitizer for their backpacks, lunch box, and desk and remind them to use before eating lunch or snacks.

Another option is to provide a packet of antibacterial wipes.

Likewise, be sure your child has a pack of tissues for the backpack and desk.

4. Provide a Proper Diet

Maintaining a proper and balanced diet is essential in helping the immune system do its work, and it improves learning, too.“Eating healthy, antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is an important part of maintaining good immune system health to help ward off infection and illness,” writes Katherine Lee, who offers a list of ten best foods for boosting an immune system at About.com Parenting.

In general, fresh fruits and vegetables are useful in providing nutrients and antioxidants that support immune system function. Whole grains and lean proteins should be on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Learning Liftoff provides numerous ideas for healthy snacks and meals in our Brain Food category.

Many experts maintain that breakfast is the most important meal when it comes to keeping a student alert during a long day at school. Some kids prefer to nibble at lunch when time can be limited. Those students might come home hungry. In that case, a nutritious snack can be highly beneficial.

Parents, however, should discuss eating options with their kids and establish guidelines for school lunches that prevent students from throwing away or trading away foods of nutritional value.

5. Get those zzzzzzzzs

“By far, the most important school health issue for most kids is getting enough sleep—about 10 to 11 hours a night for elementary school-age children,” writes Elizabeth Austin for Parenting.com. “That sounds simple, but the trouble is, it’s not always easy to make your child’s sleep patterns mesh with his new school schedule.”

Parents should ease their students into the proper bedtime schedule several weeks before school begins—not expect an instantaneous transition from extended summer hours. Teens, in particular, are likely candidates for insufficient sleep.

Dr. Greg Prazar, a New Hampshire pediatrician, tells Austin: “Don’t be surprised if your child comes home from school exhausted, especially in the first few weeks. It’s a huge adjustment for children. Lots of kids will need a nap after school to help them revive.”

Watch your student. Excessive yawning, napping on the couch, inability to focus are all possible symptoms of a tired child. Your student’s activity level and alertness will signal if more sleep is necessary.

6. Limit the Stress

Kids have a lot on their minds. Some might feel anxiety about going to or returning to school, particularly if they’ll be in a new environment with new classmates and teachers or in unfamiliar surroundings. Visiting a new school in advance can help diminish the anxiety.

Talk to your student about what to expect and to find out what’s on their mind.  Help them organize their schoolwork (individual subject folders are a great first step) and organize a work space where they can study effectively at home. Make sure your student has proper school supplies.

7. Exercise Often

Even a little exercise, like a walk around the yard will get the juices flowing. During school hours, sometimes, all a student might need is to stand up from the desk and stretch.

But during non-school hours, including weekends, exercise is a vital component for staying healthy. A jog, a bike ride, even a brisk walk—anything to give the student a break from the books, computer screen, and TV will help.

“Kids need 20 to 30 minutes of regular, non-stop exercise a day,” Dr. Prazar tells Austin. And even some team sports might not be enough.” At softball or in gym class, most kids are standing around, waiting for the ball to come to them.”

Parental participation can help prevent that and keep everyone in the family in better shape.

8. Drink Up

Kids don’t always recognize when their bodies are thirsty. “By the time children are thirsty, they’re already at least three percent dehydrated,” Dr. Holly Benjamin, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Orthopedic Surgery at University of Chicago, told Fox News.

Dehydration can lead to fatigue, feeling lightheaded, or even to nausea. So, make sure your student stays hydrated with bottled water or appropriate snacks. A child’s hydration needs will vary based on age, body size, and physical activity being performed.

Some schools do prohibit water bottles and many teachers discourage trips to the water fountain (sometimes a breeding spot for germs), so do check with your school to determine what works best.

Hydration doesn’t always have to come in the form of water. Fruits and vegetables as well as juices at lunch or snack time will help.

“When kids are hydrated, they perform better and focus better,” says Jane Bluestein, author of Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, in an Education Week article about schools prohibiting water bottles in the classroom.

“People who are dehydrated tend to feel tired, distracted,”  Kristen E. D’Anci, a research psychologist at Tufts University, tells Education Week. “When you’re hungry or thirsty, are you thinking about your work? It’s a very real distraction.”

9. Select the Right Backpack

Books and supplies can weigh a kid down. Having a proper backpack can help, but the wrong backpack can lead to back pain.
Try to select a backpack that is the appropriate size for your child. It should be light with wide, padded shoulder straps.
Also remember that the load can be just as important as the pack itself. Weight in the backpack should be balanced with heavier items at the bottom. Students should try to limit their load, not carry books that aren’t needed for a particular day or session. They might also consider carrying lunch or a water bottle separately.

10. Keep Sick Kids Home

It can be tricky to know when to send a student to school and when to keep that student home for a day. Sometimes a parent just has to go with their gut. This becomes easier with time as a parent comes to understand a child’s symptoms, temperament, and ability to cope with slight discomfort.

There are times when students don’t want to miss a particular day because of activities planned at school. Sometimes, they’ll have a test scheduled (some would like to skip but others would not like to miss).  It’s important to know your individual school’s guidelines and expectations.

No matter the external reasons for debating a day at home, it’s important to remember that your child can be a walking germ-spreader. Ask yourself: Would another parent want their child sitting next to mine today?

The dilemma and debate about when to keep a child home has also intensified in recent years, as more and more children come from environments in which both parents work. The inability of some parents to work from home can create a challenge. In any event, parents must be prepared to care for the student and for the inevitable sick day.

“Don’t wait until your child’s first illness,” Linda J. Rufer, a pediatrician in Chicago tells Parenting.com. “If you’re not at home during the day, you’ll need to prepare a battle plan to provide reliable backup child care for unexpected sick days.”


Featured Image – UW Health / CC by 2.0

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