Getting the School Year Off to a Great Start – Simple Strategies

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August, 2013 – By Kristin Hestdalen M.D.  Staff Psychiatrist at Tahoe Family Solutions

With school starting again, parents often ask me how to best raise, happy, well-adjusted and academically interested kids. Although it’s impossible to control everything, there are some strategies and life-style choices that can enhance your family’s environment.

SLEEP: With parents working longer hours and kids having increasingly busy after-school schedules, early bedtimes often get sacrificed. School-aged children (ages 5-11) need at least 10 hours of sleep a night, but recent studies show American children are getting much less. Fewer hours negatively impact memory and focus and can also increase disruptive and defiant behaviors.  One hour extra per night adds up to thirty in a month.  So for children who are eager to learn and have a positive attitude, remember: 10 hours!

NUTRITION:  Childhood is the perfect time to develop good eating habits that last a life time. Providing a diet with plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains and good fats (the Omega 3’s) promotes optimal brain development and function. Avoid processed foods and refined carbohydrates (the kind in white bread and kids’ cereals). Book stores and web sites are full of great and simple recipes that incorporate healthful nutrition with the tastiness kids will appreciate.

EXERCISE: Provide enough time to run around and be a kid. Daily physical exercise is not only beneficial for kids’ growing bodies, but it also increases blood flow to the brain enhancing oxygenation. If aerobic exercise can stave off dementia in adults, just think what it can do for kids’ brains! Exercise also promotes healthy sleep and improves mood. So turn off the TV and send the kids outside!

CHORES: Having household duties promote responsibility, self-sufficiency and sacrifice. Toddlers can even take part; folding towels and counting out silverware for the family dinner are great developmentally appropriate tasks. Letting older kids take part in assigning responsibilities increases the likelihood of compliance. Don’t assign a chore without the intention of following through on the outcome, though! A wishy-washy attitude on the parent’s part reinforces your child’s belief that she is exempt from consequences.

BOREDOM: Recent polls of university professors suggest that greater numbers of incoming high-school graduates are lacking in the problem-solving department. It’s been suggested that one reason for this may be our children’s overly scheduled itineraries. From play dates to enrichment lessons, our kids are going non-stop! Give kids the unstructured space to be bored.  Using their imaginations to create something interesting promotes the functioning of brain areas associated with problem-solving. So don’t feel like you have to provide your kids with non-stop entertainment- boredom is good!

LESS TV: American kids spend more than 40 hours a week in multi-media pursuits (mainly TV and video games) and less than 45 minutes outside playing. That’s hard to believe, but true according to a recent study. Research studies have shown that early moderate exposure to TV  (prior to the age of 3) can negatively impact brain development and increase the likelihood of ADHD symptoms.  And the type of TV seems to matter, particularly in younger kids. The more stimulating the content, the bigger the impact on focus. Parents need to make informed decisions regarding their kids’ multimedia exposure. A good rule of thumb is 30 minutes (or less) per day for 3-5 year olds and no more than 60 minutes per day for 6 and up.  Remember, less is more!

READING and TALKING:  Reading to your kids may be the single most important thing you can do as a parent to improve your child’s academic success. All the educational games crowding the shelves at toy stores and learning centers, don’t take the place of sitting down with your kids and reading to them. Additionally, families who have dinner together and talk about their day have children who are more academically successful. Reading and talking to your child encourages language development and communication skills, both of which significantly impact learning. For the time-impaired, jump on opportunities afforded by a car trip to the store. Turn off the i-pods and turn up the talking!

As with any family, a certain amount of flexibility is key, and certain situations will demand a change in format. But parents should be reassured that whatever the unique challenges their kids may be facing, providing a positive environment will only enhance their outcomes.

Kristin Hestdalen, MD

(Dr. Hestdalen is a board-certified child psychiatrist who practices at Tahoe Family Solutions, A Child’s World and Sierra Mental Health Associates)

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