Back to school: Pediatrician offers tips to help parents and kids survive and thrive | TheUnion.com

Back to school: Pediatrician offers tips to help parents and kids survive and thrive

By Mary Beth TeSelle

Special to The Union

Over the next few weeks, kids throughout western Nevada County will be making the transition from summertime fun to school-year routine.

For some children, letting go of the carefree, schedule-free days of summer can be challenging. And their parents may find back to school time to be tough on them, as well.

Fortunately, there are a few simple steps parents can take to help make the return to school and the year ahead a bit easier for everyone.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to ask for help before the first day of school arrives. This can include meeting with school administrators or teachers about concerns you may have about your child, socially or academically.

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Grass Valley pediatrician Pete Harris, MD, with Sierra Care Pediatrics, echoes that recommendation. Harris reminds parents also to reach out to their child's doctor before school starts to schedule any needed immunizations and to discuss any developmental issues your child may be experiencing.

"Learning problems are managed jointly by the school and your pediatrician," Harris said. "Talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned about possible ADHD, anxiety, depression, or an underlying medical issue as a cause of learning problems."

Harris also talks to his school-age families about managing school-related stress. "For younger children nervous about the first day, consider visiting the classroom and playground before the school year starts. Discuss expectations and what they are excited about. Leave early on the first day so you are not stressed."

For older kids, Harris urges parents to be mindful of the child's schedule.

"I believe parents should support the interests of their child while avoiding being overcommitted to activities," said Harris. "Allow adequate time for homework. Allow free time for them to be bored. That will foster their creativity and help them develop coping strategies."

If, once the school year gets underway, a child is still experiencing school-related stress, Harris encourages parents to teach their children mindfulness practices. This can include taking a moment to take a few deep breaths and clear their head before they move on to their next assignment or task.

If a child continues to struggle with stress, or if the stress is affecting their daily behavior or involves expressions of self-harm, talk to your pediatrician immediately.

Developing a relaxing and consistent bedtime routine also may help alleviate stress. Harris reminds parents that children need at least 10-12 hours per night and teens need 8-10 hours per night.

The AAP points out that children who do not get enough sleep have more difficulty concentrating and learning. In fact, insufficient sleep is associated with lower academic achievement in middle school, high school and college, and is also linked to higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness.

To help your child get enough sleep, Harris recommends establishing a consistent bedtime and a calming pre-bedtime routine. That routine may include a bath or shower and some reading time. One thing it should not include, according to Harris, is electronics.

"Children should avoid screen time for two hours prior to bedtime," Harris says. "Teens with cellphones should be expected to plug their phone in overnight in a common area, away from the bedroom. Just being near a phone will encourage texting, tweeting, Snapchatting, and whatever else they like to do these days in lieu of sleep. Invest in an old school alarm clock rather than relying on a cell phone."

Finally, Harris encourages parents to use back-to-school time as an opportunity to re-examine their children's nutrition. He points to the ChooseMyPlate.gov website as an excellent resource to learn more about portion size and the proper balance of food groups.

"Children learn better when they aren't hungry" said Harris. "Encourage a healthy breakfast that includes a protein source to help them focus throughout the morning. Avoid sugar-laden foods such as juice, flavored yogurts, and granola. At dinnertime, the most important thing you can do as a family is to eat a meal together around a dinner table with the TV off and phones put away."

Harris reminds parents the school year is a great time to encourage independence in our kids.

"Give your kids the tools they need to succeed but avoid paving the path for them. Let them struggle. Provide graduated responsibility with the goal of being independent by age 18. Encourage development of their own goals and an intrinsic desire to learn rather than external rewards."