Homework for parents as school starts

Summer vacation is over. Not great news if you're a kid. But some of you parents may feel more than ready to send your charges back to school. But are you? Are you really? Here are a few things to consider.

Vaccinations

What to do? Make sure your children have the shots they need.

Why? It’s the best way to keep them from getting sick unnecessarily. Also, it’s the law. See http://eziz.org/assets/docs/IMM-231.pdf.

Details. Children can be exempted for medical reasons; if their parents — after being informed by a healthcare professional about the benefits and risks of the vaccinations — don’t want the children to have them; or if vaccinations would go against their parents’ religious beliefs.

When parents decide not to vaccinate their children, it’s often because they fear that vaccines cause autism. Reliable scientific research has not found any such link, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine.

Most members of the medical community strongly encourage vaccinations. The more children who are vaccinated, the smaller the chance that any children will get sick. To be really effective, vaccination needs to be widespread.

Sleep

What to do? Make sure your kids get plenty of sleep.

Why? A good night’s sleep improves their chances of having a good day at school — not to mention a good diet.

Details. Maybe they burn the midnight oil studying, or maybe playing computer games. But whatever the reason, there’s a good chance your children don’t get enough sleep. Not everyone needs the same amount, but guidelines from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute set the goal for school-aged children at 10 hours or more every night, and for teens, nine to 10 hours. Unfortunately, at least one poll of parents found that, on average, their school-aged children fell short of the desired quota of zzz’s by about an hour. And an hour can make a big difference. Research published in 2012 in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that 8- to 12-year-olds fared significantly worse during the day — both cognitively and emotionally — when they averaged about eight hours of shut-eye as opposed to about nine.

Research has also found a link between sleeping too little and eating too much. While this link has been seen at all ages, it seems especially strong in children, according to the CDC, perhaps because sleep is especially important for brain development during childhood and adolescence. In particular, too little sleep may be bad news for the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that affects a person’s appetite.

Breakfast

What to do? Make sure your children eat a good breakfast.

Why? They’re likely to be healthier, behave better in class and get better grades — even have a higher IQ.

Details. They may oversleep. They may say they’re not hungry. But no excuse is a good excuse for your kids to skip breakfast. A 2013 article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reviewed research conducted from 1950 to 2013 and found that breakfast is generally associated with better behavior and better academic performance. And what kind of breakfast kids get seems to matter. Breakfasts with higher nutritional quality have been associated with bigger boosts to brainpower and comportment.

In addition, one 2013 study, not included in the review, found regular breakfast-eaters had higher IQ scores than frequent breakfast-skippers. In that study, researchers reported, it didn’t matter what the children ate just as long as they ate.

So breakfast is important. Don’t let your kids leave home without it — unless they’re going to get one at school. Research shows that, compared with children who eat breakfast at home or don’t eat it at all, children who eat breakfast at school have better nutrition, consume a wider variety of foods (including more fruits and milk), are less likely to weigh too much and even perform better on standardized tests, perhaps because they fuel up closer to test-taking time.

Bullying

What to do? Watch for signs that your children are being bullied or are being bullies themselves.

Why? Bullying is a serious problem, especially in middle school, but there’s a good chance your children won’t voluntarily talk to you about it.

Details. In a large study of children in grades 4 through 12, nearly 50% reported that they had been bullied at school by other students at least once during the previous month; about 30% reported that they themselves had bullied other students that month; and about 70% said they had seen bullying going on in their schools — where most bullying happens. Although cyber-bullying is frequently in the news, it actually happens much less often.

Parents may be blissfully unaware of the scope of the bullying problem because only about a third of bullying victims report it to adults, according to statistics from the 2008-09 School Crime Supplement published by the U.S. Department of Education. And it seems safe to assume that the ones who do the bullying are even less eager to tell on themselves.

But if your children are being bullied, you may see some of these signs: They come home with injuries they can’t explain; their possessions keep going missing; they have an unusual number of real or imagined physical complaints; they start skipping meals or binge-eating or coming home hungry because they didn’t eat lunch; they can’t sleep well and have nightmares when they do; their grades drop, and they become school-aversive; their social life goes into a steep decline; they feel helpless and inadequate; they talk about — or actually engage in — self-destructive behaviors.

And if your children are doing some bullying of their own, you may notice some of these: They get into fights (physical or verbal); they have friends who are bullies; they act more and more aggressively; they get into trouble at school; they show up with money or new possessions from unnamed sources; they blame others for anything that goes wrong; they’re competitive and hyper-concerned about their popularity.

Scientists are working to understand bullying and how to prevent it, but they don’t have all the answers. Still, experts encourage parents to talk with their children about bullying if they see any signs of trouble — and even if they don’t. Studies have shown it can help.

Concussions

What to do? Learn about concussions and how they should be handled, and how to avoid them if you can.

Why? A brain is a terrible thing to damage.

Details. Playing sports is good for kids — except when it’s not. One problem: Kids are especially vulnerable to injury. In particular, evidence suggests that blows to the face or head — which, unfortunately, are not unheard of in many sports — are more apt to result in concussions for children than for adults, and children may take longer to recover. Scariest of all, if not handled properly, concussions can interfere with children’s long-term cognitive development.

A concussion is a brain injury, and it doesn’t take much to cause one. A seemingly small bump can sometimes be enough. Common signs of a concussion include headache, confusion and not remembering what happened. But the signs are not always obvious, they don’t always show up immediately, and children who want to get back in the game are not always eager to mention them.

Any child suspected of getting a concussion in a game should be taken out right away and not allowed to go back without clearance from a physician — no matter how much the child may protest. A child who has been diagnosed with a concussion needs rest, both physical and mental. (Note that playing video games and watching TV count as mental activities.)

For more information, you can download the “Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports” tool kit from the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Concussion/.

Outsmarting the common cold and the flu

What to do? Teach your children some simple biology about how and why they can catch a cold or the flu.

Why? Studies have shown that when children understand a few basic scientific principles, they are more likely to behave in ways that reduce their chances of getting sick.

Details. If your children’s first day of school is just around the corner, can their first sick days of the year be far behind? Maybe not. But you can increase your chances of keeping them well — not so much by nagging them about sweaters and raincoats and galoshes but by teaching them about the viruses that actually cause colds and the flu.

In a 2008 study in Cognitive Psychology, researchers taught fourth-graders in Hong Kong this basic science: (1) Cold/flu viruses are living things too tiny for the naked eye to see; (2) Once they get inside a person, these viruses are very happy campers, but they can survive outside too — for several hours when it’s cool and humid, not so long when it’s hot and dry. And they’re toast if they get boiled or cooked or attacked by disinfectants such as alcohol or bleach. (3) Dead viruses can’t hurt anybody. But if they get inside someone while they’re alive, they can make the person sick. (4) And because they’re so little, it’s easy for the viruses to sneak inside a person through the eyes, nose or mouth.

The researchers taught another group of fourth-graders basic information about colds and the flu, including some do’s and don’ts, but not including the above how’s and why’s. And they offered both groups of children tips about washing their hands and not touching their faces, etc.

Before these lessons, researchers tested whether the children would spontaneously clean their hands before handling some crackers. After the lessons, they tested whether they would spontaneously clean their hands before touching some paper napkins to be used in a tea party. Among the children who learned the how’s and why’s of viruses, 15% cleaned their hands in the first test, while 41% did so in the second. Among the children who didn’t learn the how’s and why’s, the percentage was 14% on both tests.

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