Many parents will have breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of their children returning to school after the summer vacation. But rather than having to think of ways to keep them entertained or out of mischief, parental thoughts now turn to ensuring that they stay fit and well throughout the school term.
According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, around 50.1 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools this fall, with another 4.9 million students estimated to attend private schools.
Each of these children will experience school differently. Some may be incredibly excited about entering the classroom, while others may find it anxiety-inducing and stressful.
Although each child will have unique perceptions of school, there are also a number of concerns that apply to schoolchildren almost universally, such as what should be eaten at lunch and what bags should be worn.
As a result, there are a number of health tips that can be followed to ensure that all children are in the best possible position to succeed at school.
In this Spotlight, we take a look at some of the measures that can be taken to help children heading back to the classroom stay as healthy as they possibly can, and in doing so, help them both enjoy and perform well at school.
The best fit for a healthy back
When you picture a child heading off to school, one of the first things that comes to mind is their backpack. It is an essential piece of equipment that no young student can do without. Considering the amount of books and supplies that are carried in these bags, it is unsurprising that they can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing.
“A child wearing a backpack incorrectly or that is too heavy can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, and musculoskeletal pain especially in the lower back,” states Karen Jacobs, clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, MA.
Indeed, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that almost 28,000 sprains, strains, dislocations and fractureswere treated in emergency rooms and clinics in 2010 attributable to backpack wearing.
As a result, great care should be taken when deciding what backpack a child wears. Although children can be picky with what they wear, there are a number of factors that should always be taken into consideration when selecting a backpack.
The most important thing is that a backpack should fit, in the same way that a new pair of shoes should be comfortable to wear. A good backpack should not be wider or longer than the torso of the wearer, and should be from around 2 inches below the shoulder blades to around waist level.
“The right fit should be your top criteria when selecting your child’s backpack,” advises Jacobs. “If you order online, be sure that the seller has a return policy just in case the backpack is not quite the best fit for your child and needs to be exchanged.”
When wearing a backpack, the wearer should always use both straps to ensure that its weight is distributed evenly across the body. Ideally, a backpack’s straps should be padded to provide additional support and to stop them from digging into the shoulders.
Padding in the back of the pack serves the dual role of providing extra support and protecting the wearer from pointed edges such as the corners of large books.
Some backpacks also come with hip belts, which are terrific for taking some of the weight off of the wearer’s shoulders and neck. These can also improve the wearer’s balance.
Finally, backpacks should not be too heavy, ideally weighing no more than 10% of a wearer’s body weight. Ensure that a backpack only contains the items it has to, making use of storage spaces both at home and at school. Distribute weight wisely as well, positioning heavier items next to the back and lighter items in outer compartments.
Aside from routinely weighing a child’s backpack, there are a number of signs that can suggest when a backpack is too heavy. Changes in posture when the bag is being worn, having difficulty with putting the bag on or taking off, pain, numbness and red marks associated with wearing the backpack all signify that a bag is too heavy.
Packed lunches: a balancing act
One item that can be found in many school backpacks is a packed lunch. Parents who prepare the lunches that their children eat at school play an important role in both the health of their children and their academic performance.
Not only have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that hunger can lead to poor school performance, but healthy students tend to perform better than unhealthy ones. This indicates that healthy and filling lunches could be crucial to how a child does at school.
Most advice on healthy packed lunches recommends being creative as well as health-conscious, in order to keep a packed lunched nutritionally balanced but also easy to eat. Packed lunches should aim to contain a mixture of different types of food:
Starchy food, such as bread, tortilla wraps, rice or pasta
Protein food, such as meat, fish, eggs or beans
A portion of fruit or vegetables
A dairy item, such as cheese or yogurt.
To prevent making lunches that tick all these boxes from becoming a formulaic chore, the American Heart Association (AHA) have a number of suggestions that can make it easy to provide a balanced meal.
Sandwich staples such as cheese and mayo can be substituted for slightly more healthy options such as avocado and hummus that have similar textures. Adding extra vegetables to sandwiches can be done subtly. Shredded carrot and zucchini can be used in a similar way to lettuce and tomato and augment a standard turkeysandwich with a different taste experience.
Leftovers from family dinners can also make providing a healthy and fulfilling lunch a simpler task. Some meals can provide the basis for sandwiches – leftover grilled chicken, for example – while other meals can provide a lunch in and of themselves, such as leftover chili, pasta or casserole.
Young children often find food that involves dunking especially pleasing, and dunking and dipping snacks represent a great opportunity to provide food that is both healthy and fun. Such food can be sweet or savory; slices of fruit can be dipped into low-fat yogurt and peanut butter, while strips of vegetables can be dunked into hummus or salsa.
Although some children are happy to eat the same thing every day, varying what goes into a lunch box can encourage them to try out new things that they otherwise might not consider.
Finally, including children in the process of choosing and preparing food for packed lunch can also inform them about making healthy choices while improving the likelihood of them eating their lunch. Children are more likely to eat food that they have chosen themselves.
Getting a good night’s sleep
Sleep is important for children who are attending school, recharging their batteries so that they have the energy to engage with their schoolwork, while also protecting against the negative consequences of stress.
For many children, returning to school after the summer vacation can be a very stressful experience, particularly if they are starting out at a completely new school and do not know anybody yet.
A recent study, led by researchers from Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, and published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, examined the impact of getting a good night’s sleep on children’s cortisol levels – a hormone helps regulate the body’s cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems.