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Smartest Strategies for Our Kids as They Kick Off the School Year

Dr. William Sears, a longtime pediatrician and healthy child expert, identifies three top areas that parents and caregivers need to focus on this fall (and far beyond)

In my family, we’ve encountered and survived many back-to-school health issues in my 50-plus years as a pediatrician and 52 years as a parent of eight children.

And now, I’m a grandfather of 15 grandchildren — so I have even more experience and advice to share.

Below, I’m sharing some of my family’s best tips for three of the most common issues children are likely to face at this time of year. Read this start to finish — and share with others! It’s based on tried-and-true experience and advice.

Here are the topics all parents and caregivers can address right away:

1.) Back-to-school stress. The stress my children experienced in school was nothing like what our grandchildren face today. Now there’s more media time and less play time. Competition is more intense. Children begin feeling stressed at younger ages. And after a summer of playing, sleeping in and doing no homework, suddenly our children — like some adults returning from a long vacation — suffer stress overload.

Remember, both your parenting efforts and the kids’ years of schooling are giving children the tools they need to succeed in their lives. And one of the top tools is stress reduction, especially with an “attitude of gratitude.” No matter how much “life sucks” — and sometimes it does — every single one of us has a few things to be thankful for — and we can help remind our kids of that.

We’ve taught our children to “preload” the calming center of the brain — which is done when they’re drifting off to sleep and when they wake the next day. These techniques were considered novel when my kids were small but are more accepted now.

Related: The Back-to-School Tips No One Ever Shares

First, have the kids create and then tape n their bathroom mirror a list of things called “Five Things I Like About Me” — such as, “I like my smile,” “I like that I’m a good soccer player,” and “I like that I’m honest.”

Second, as they drift off to sleep (sometimes with their “stress-therapist” mom or dad beside them to facilitate this technique,) have the kids think about five things that they actually are, which I call the “I am” technique. This is a technique taught to me by several patients in my pediatric practice. Some examples for kids are “I am smart,” “I am pretty,” “I am strong,” and so on.

These stress-reduction exercises set up children for a good night’s sleep — which, in turn, set them up for a good day of learning. When they wake up in the morning, they return to the bathroom mirror and say the five things they’re thankful for — this is the “attitude of gratitude,” as I mentioned earlier: “I am thankful for my friends at school,” and so on.

These techniques can become a habit they can practice, use and adapt all their lives.

2.) Back-to-school coughs and sniffles. When my kids were small, we taught them to wash their hands frequently to help kill viruses and bacteria they may have collected. Hand washing is still the most effective way to stay healthy, the CDC notes. We taught our kids to use regular soap and warm water to scrub their hands, including the back of their hands, in between the fingers and under their nails, for 20 seconds.

Today, the grandchildren use antibacterial gel or wipes if soap and water are not available.

My wife, Martha, and I also showed our children how to properly cover their noses and mouths when they coughed. Many people today only put their fist in front of their mouth (or they turn away from others); but many germs also come through the nose. Children should put a whole hand over their noses and mouths so that the fingers are over the nose and the palm of their hand covers their mouth — and then wash their hands afterward.

My kids also ate “brainy” breakfasts filled with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables that supported their immune health. Now, with our grab-and-go society, breakfast may not always be as nutritious.

While good nutrition is considered essential in our extended family, our grandchildren, ages four and up, can also take black elderberry supplements such as Sambucol, a highly researched form of black elderberry available as great-tasting chewies for natural immune support during cough and cold season.

My kids also ate “brainy” breakfasts filled with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables that supported their immune health.

3.) Back-to-school belly aches and bathroom anxiety. Today’s parents are sometimes surprised when their children won’t use a school bathroom — and they’re sometimes just as perplexed about how to solve the problem.

When my kids were in school, belly aches and bathroom anxiety were an occasional problem. But with our grandchildren, these issues are intensified given the increased amount of processed, constipating foods available to kids.

Regularity is such a huge issue for young children that my wife (a registered nurse) and I wrote “Dr. Poo: The Scoop on Comfortable Poop.” It provides smart tips and an array of resources.

Related: Stunning Benefits of a Tall Glass of Water

One reason kids hesitate to use the bathroom at school is that they’d rather play with their friends than spend extra time in the restroom. Today we have some great hacks, such as “invisible” fiber to put into what they’re already eating and drinking; that way, using the restroom is much more comfortable for them. Our family prefers kid-friendly fibers, such as Sunfiber or Regular Girl, which don’t cause extra gas or bloating.

Bonus tip: Teach kids to drink water when they first wake up in the morning. The young student’s brain doesn’t like to start the day dehydrated from all the water they breathed out during the night. Soon after awakening, have your child down a couple glasses of water.

William Sears, M.D., has been advising parents on how to raise healthier families for decades. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital. He then served as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California Irvine. He and his wife, Martha Sears, R.N., have written more than 45 books and hundreds of articles on parenting, childcare, nutrition, and healthy aging. He is the co-founder of the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute for training health coaches and runs the health and parenting website AskDrSears.com

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