This summer, parents are making sure that their children and teens are ready for school by visiting the pediatrician to check they're up-to-date on immunizations, ready for organized sports, and have a plan to care for any health problems before the start of the school year. Parents can give the same kind of check-up to their child's school – to make sure it's the healthiest environment for learning and growing.
"Children spend a significant part of their day in school, and so the school environment is really important to their overall health," said Sandra Hassink, MD, FAAP, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight. "To thrive in school, every child needs a nutritious diet, enough exercise, sleep, and other basic building blocks of wellness. Schools that create a healthy, nurturing environment will be more successful at helping students learn."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents look for these elements in their child's school:
1. Healthy school lunches
The meals children eat at school are an important part of their overall nutrition. Children typically eat 35 percent to 40 percent of their daily calories while at school. As a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by congress in 2010, most schools are serving meals that contain less sugar, lean meats, low fat dairy, more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. While the occasional cupcake is not a threat to an otherwise healthy diet, the AAP recommends schools also consider how the informal snacks, beverages and treats offered at school fit within a culture of healthy eating. Drinking water should be available and safe, too. Parents can check with their school to see if it has a wellness policy.
2. Daily recess
This daily break provides an opportunity for unstructured play that is fundamental for children's social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. The AAP recommends recess be a regularly scheduled part of the school day, and long enough for students to mentally decompress, be physically active, and interact with peers. It complements but does not replace physical education. The AAP believes withholding recess for academic or punitive reasons is counterproductive. Parents can also check that the playground and other outdoor spaces are safe for children.
3. Safe routes to school
Kids should be safe traveling to and from school whether they walk, bike, drive or ride a bus. If your child walks to school, the AAP recommends you first make sure the route is safe, with well-trained crossing guards at every intersection your child must cross. The AAP has had a long-standing position that new school buses should have safety restraints. Parents should work with school districts to encourage that every new bus be equipped with lap/shoulder seat belt restraints that also can accommodate car seats, booster seats, and harness systems.
4. Reasonable start times
Kids – especially teens – perform better in school when they have had enough time for sleep. The AAP recommends middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to align with the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift two hours later at the start of puberty. Research shows that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in car crashes, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life.
5. Protection from disease
High immunization rates among students make it much less likely a contagious disease like measles, chicken pox or whooping cough will make your child sick. When a high percentage of people are immunized, a school can achieve "community immunity" against disease outbreaks. Parents can learn how their state compares to other states in an interactive infographic from AAP. Other sites, such as School Digger, allow you to check the immunization rates at individual schools in your community.
6. A school nurse
A school nurse helps keep children healthy – and in school. This is important as more children have chronic health issues like allergies, ADHD and asthma. A school nurse can help manage some illnesses in school and reduce absentee rates among students. The AAP recommends a minimum of one full-time professional school nurse in every school with medical oversight from a school physician in every school district.
7. Freedom from bullying and teasing
Bullying and teasing is all too common in schools, on playgrounds and buses. Parents should make sure that their child's school has a bullying and teasing policy in place and that the school environment is a safe space for all students.
For additional tips on preparing children for school, including getting over first-day jitters, backpack safety, and establishing good study habits, see the AAP Back to School Tips sheet.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 66,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit www.aap.org and follow us on Twitter @AmerAcadPeds.