With the official end of summer just around the corner, kids are packing up their backpacks, meeting their new teachers and revving up their brains for a new academic year.
Back-to-school season raises a myriad of potential health and preventive health issues.
Most schools request evidence of age-appropriate vaccination. For younger children who are starting school for the first time, this includes a record of infant vaccines as well as boosters for viral illnesses such as measles and chicken pox, which are commonly given at age 4 or 5 years. Adolescent vaccines include a tetanus and whooping cough booster as well as a vaccine series for human papilloma virus, which is now recommended for both girls and boys. Vaccination for bacterial meningitis is commonly advised for older adolescents.
The start of school tends to coincide with the start of the cold virus season. This is partly seasonal and partly because of closer interaction among groups of susceptible kids. It is a great time to reinforce good respiratory and hand hygiene to reduce spread of viral illness. Covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow sleeve, avoiding touching the face when ill and hand-washing or use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is effective.
Busy school schedules are often compounded by busy extracurricular schedules. Activities such as sports, performing arts or clubs can enhance physical health, self-esteem and social skills. Yet, it is important to find a balance between school, activities, family time and personal time. It is especially important to reserve adequate time for sleep. Recommended sleep duration varies with age, but generally is about 9 to 10 hours per night for school-aged children. Inadequate sleep can impair mood and academic performance and has been linked to overeating and weight-related health problems over the long run.
The school schedule and school environment itself can present both health challenges and opportunities. Seeking the right balance requires parent advocacy with school staff and administration. Kids spend much of their waking hours in school. A healthful school promotes a safe, low-stress environment for learning, ready access to water and bathroom facilities, healthful dietary options including food and beverages and opportunities for regular physical activity, which has been independently linked to better academic outcomes.
It is imperative that children with special health and academic needs be identified to school staff to ensure an optimal and nurturing learning environment.
A healthy school environment is supported by a healthy home environment. Parents model healthy behaviors to their children through choices about such things as diet, physical activity, constructive conflict resolution strategies, avoidance of addictive substances and an appropriate sleep schedule. Prioritizing family time and personal time promotes developmental growth and provides a sense of security for kids.
Best wishes to all the students starting back to school for a productive and healthy school year.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.