A normal start of the school year comes with new backpacks, new teachers—and new germs. And this year brings a whole new meaning to that. Whether your child is in pre-K or 12th grade, during a typical school year, they are spending significant time around other kids, exposing them to more microorganisms then they’re used to. In light of COVID-19, many school districts are turning to online learning or opening with precautionary measures. Whether your child is going back to the classroom or staying home, there are healthy habits for kids you can teach them to strengthen your child’s immune system.
1. Reset their sleep schedule
The summer months are full of camps, sleepovers, and vacations… and the late nights that come along with those. It is perfectly normal for children to have a later bedtime during school break—even if your family is social distancing. However, it is important that their bodies have time to readjust to their new sleep schedule ahead of going back to school.
Erin McCann, MD, a Chicago-based pediatrician, recommends parents slowly readjust their child’s bedtime by about 15 minutes every few days in the weeks leading up to school. Doing so allows their body to readjust and ensures they will be well rested for the school year. Once school starts, you’ll want to help your children maintain a consistent sleep schedule, which means approximately the same bedtime seven nights a week. Also, it is important that children and adolescents receive quality sleep, which means no electronics (television, laptop, gaming device, tablet, or phone) in the bedroom after bedtime.
2. Teach hand hygiene
You’ve probably already educated your kids on the importance of handwashing throughout the pandemic, but it’s important to remind them of the extra need for cleanliness before returning schools—and not just after the bathroom. Kids should be washing up after the bathroom, before eating, after sneezing or coughing into their hands (which they shouldn’t be doing anyway!), or if they’ve put their hands in their mouth or nose.
Dr. McCann stresses the importance of diligent handwashing for first-time students since they are around new kids and new germs. The Centers for Disease Control recommends washing with soap and water for 20 seconds. A great trick for young children is to have them sing the ABCs to know when they’ve washed long enough.
Make sure your children know how to properly use hand sanitizer when handwashing isn’t possible. They need to know not to ingest it or touch their eyes with it. Additionally, make sure you’re sending them to school with safe products. Read about recent hand sanitizer recalls here.
3. Promote healthy eating
For many young students, they equate a new school year with a new lunchbox. (And getting one for kiddos who are doing online learning may help ease the frustration of not getting to see friends for a “normal” school year.) Make sure you’re filling it with healthy food options. The Mayo Clinic recommends that parents strive to give their kids a balanced diet of protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. Additionally, you should limit trans fats and foods with added sugar.
“During the school year, food is fuel, so talk to them about making sure they are eating throughout the day, and getting breakfast before they go to school,” Dr. McCann advises.
Eating breakfast has benefits for people of all ages, especially young children. Not only can eating breakfast help retain a lower BMI, but it can also help increase memory and attention. Your children may qualify for an assisted school lunch program which provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or no-cost lunches to children each school day even if they are remote learning .
4. Encourage them to speak up
Despite your best efforts to keep your kids germ-free, the reality is they will get sick at some point. “A healthy immune system for a kid could [still result in] 5-6 colds a year,” Dr. McCann says. “Parents get anxious about kids getting cold viruses, [but] it’s normal for them to get colds when they are young and first starting school.”
Teach your children that if they’re not feeling well at school, they should speak up. If your child is sick, he or she should stay home to prevent spreading germs. Seek help from a pediatrician if they exhibit signs of COVID-19.
5. Anticipate anxiety
Another important aspect to back-to-school health is a child’s mental health, and that’s more true this year than ever. Going to school for a new year or for the first time can be scary and overwhelming. Going to school—or having to stay home—during a pandemic only adds to that stress. Parents can help their kids by preparing for that anxiety and offering a shoulder to lean on.
Prepare them by explaining what they can expect and what changes will come with going to school. If possible, walk them through the school and their classroom ahead of time. Dr. McCann recommends finding picture books that discuss feelings and starting school to help them prepare and understand.
Parents and caregivers should be careful not to project their own anxiety onto children as they tend to take their cues from adults. Avoid lengthy goodbyes and try to project the natural expectation that they will do well. Overhelping can be counterproductive and actually promote anxiety. Acknowledge that you understand your child’s concerns, but insist on them attending school and stick to routines as this helps reduce anxiety.
No matter what the new school year may bring for your children, make sure they know you are there to support them and to be a resource. It is also important for parents to know that they have resources as well. Whether you are concerned about your child’s mental health or physical health, know that having an open and honest conversation with their pediatrician (or the school nurse) can benefit both you and them.
The bottom line
School is an exciting and important part of children’s lives. It gives them routine, a sense of purpose, knowledge,skills, and peer socialization. With encouragement and parental guidance, children will look forward to attending school, will stay safe and healthy, and thrive!