Studying and hard work play an important role in how well a student does in school. But there are some basics beyond paying attention in class and doing homework. Fundamentals like good nutrition, plenty of sleep, and enough exercise really matter. These tips will help get children off to a strong start and ready to perform at their best all year long.
The old line that breakfast is the most important meal of the day isn’t just talk. Breakfast plays a critical role in a child’s development, behavior, and overall health, says Oz Garcia, coauthor of The Food Cure for Kids: A Nutritional Approach to Your Child’s Wellness.
“Children tend to have less energy when they do not eat breakfast, and this can affect their routine for the rest of the day,” Garcia says. Breakfasts that include oatmeal, whole grain cereals, and eggs are great options.
Pediatrician William Sears agrees that eating a healthy breakfast pays off in big ways. “Studies have shown that children who begin the day with a ‘brainy breakfast’ receive higher grades, participate more in class, are less likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder or learning disabilities, handle complex learning tasks better, and miss fewer school days because of illness,” he says.
Sears is author of more than 40 books on children’s health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. “Children’s learning and behavior at school is so influenced by what the child eats at home and at school....If you put junk food into a child’s brain, you get junk behavior and junk learning.”
Eating healthy snacks also helps keep your child’s behavior and attention on track. Sears suggests packing morning and afternoon snacks for your child to bring to school each day.
If your kids resist the healthy foods, provide them with some options and let them choose what to eat, recommends chef Cat Cora, who earned acclaim as the first female Iron Chef on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. Children as young as age 3 can get involved in deciding what to eat as long parents offer them a choice of two healthy options, such as an apple or a banana, she says.
The mother of four boys, Cora prevents her children from eating junk food by not bringing it into the house in the first place. For example, she says, “if we buy cheese puffs, we buy organic and baked.” She adds that kids are attracted to foods based on their brand packaging. One way to counter this is to buy healthy snacks such as veggie chips, dried fruit, almonds, and pretzels, take them out of the packaging, and place them in clear jars on the counter.
A Good Night’s Sleep
Like good nutrition, sleep plays a key role in getting children ready to learn. Kids need at least 10 hours of sleep to function well in school, get good grades, and maintain their health, says Richard Castriotta, director of the division of pulmonary and sleep medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
Getting kids into bed and asleep early enough can be a challenge, especially during the first few weeks of the new school year. The easiest way to adjust a sleep schedule is to change the wake-up time gradually, Castriotta says. Getting your child up 15 minutes earlier each day, for example, should help make him more tired at night and thus more willing to accept an earlier bedtime. Starting that schedule two or three weeks before school starts can make the transition easier.
Once the school year has begun, it’s important to enforce a time when lights are out. Make sure the bedroom is quiet, cool, and dark, Castriotta says. Turn off the television and keep the house quiet. When schedules don’t quite allow kids to get a full 10 hours of sleep, a short nap when they come home from school can be beneficial.
Parents can help children wind down by not allowing stimulating activities within a few hours of bedtime. These include playing sports, playing video games, and using the computer. Also, make sure to get enough sleep yourself. “To get children to have reasonable habits about sleep, you have to show them that you do it, too,” Castriotta notes.
Keeping kids active not only encourages rest later in the evening; it also helps them stay fit and energized. “Just as kids need to eat every day to stay healthy, they should exercise every day to stay healthy,” says Len Saunders, a physical education teacher in New Jersey and author of Keeping Kids Fit: A Family Plan for Raising Active, Healthy Children. “Simple things like reducing technology in the home and replacing it with exercise is a good start.”
The goal is for children to get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise each day. Saunders encourages parents to walk to school with their children one day a week. “If your child lives too far from their school, pick a day to go for a family walk around your neighborhood after dinner,” he suggests.
Set up play dates with your child’s friends and their parents, or consider signing up your child for a seasonal sport with a friend. Find out what your child is doing in PE class and continue those activities at home. For example, if your child is playing basketball that week in PE, play basketball at home. “Communicate with the PE teacher to find out your children’s strengths and weaknesses,” Saunders recommends.
As your family’s schedule gets more hectic, you might be tempted to cut corners by skipping breakfast, staying up late, and lounging on the couch instead of exercising. But the benefits of these healthy habits make it all worthwhile. Following these tips will not only help get your kids’ school year off to a great start, it will also help keep your family healthy all year long.