That ringing you hear in the distance is the sound of the school bell. And it's getting louder.
In much of the country, if school hasn't started already, it will be soon, right after Labor Day. So now's the time to make sure the kids are rested and ready to tackle the books in good health.
USA TODAY spoke to experts in child health -- Atlanta pediatrician and author Jennifer Shu, medical editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics' healthychildren.org; Kate Cronan, a pediatrician at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., medical editor at Kidshealth.org; and Louisville allergist James Sublett, chairman of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's Indoor Environment Committee. They offered advice on setting the stage for a healthy school year.
All states require that children starting school be vaccinated against specific illnesses, such as measles, mumps, polio and other infectious diseases. State laws vary, and exemptions may be allowed for medical or religious reasons. Check with your doctor, the school or your health department for specifics.
Don't forget the annual flu vaccine. School-age children have the highest rates of flu, and while some seasons are milder than others, this highly contagious disease can rage through schools, causing absenteeism among staff and students.
About one in four children have allergies, Sublett says, and half of those have allergies that are moderate to severe. About 10% of all children have asthma, and many are undiagnosed. "Asthma and allergies are the main reason kids miss school," he says. Often, parents "misidentify kids as just having a lot of colds, but by preschool or kindergarten, if they're still having a lot of colds and bronchitis, you'd better rule out allergies."
If a child is having symptoms, it's important to see an allergist, identify the triggers and develop a plan for allergy shots, medication or avoidance of the problem.
Many schools permit students to carry inhalers and other needed medications, but, Sublett says, communication between parent and school is key. There will be records to share and forms to fill out, so "don't wait till school starts to let them know."
To avoid back problems, make sure the backpack fits and is not too heavy, Shu says. That means adjusting straps so the child can put both of them on with the heaviest weight carried in the back. A loaded backpack should weigh no more than 10% to 20% of the child's weight.
Food and water
When kids are overtired and racing for the bus, breakfast is the last thing they want. Plan your strategy. Stock up on healthy foods -- dried fruit, trail mix, yogurt cups, small cups of cereal that they can eat dry, whole fruits. Peanut butter and banana on bread or a quick fruit smoothie takes just a few minutes to prepare. "Get input from the kids about both breakfast and lunch, and if you can get them to help (fix meals) the night before, you'll know they'll eat it. Get buy-in from the kids," Cronan says.
Another tip: Pack water. "Kids get dehydrated during the school day."
Think of safety before and after school, Shu says. Questions to consider: Is there supervision on the walking route and at the bus stop? Who is going to pick the child up at the end of the school day, and what is the plan if the designated adult doesn't arrive on time? Is there after-care at school? Who should a child call in an emergency? Talk about bus safety: Don't run in front of the bus, use caution getting on and off the bus, watch for cars, stay seated when the bus is moving and use seat belts if they're available. "Those are life-and-death things," Shu says.
The first day of school can be a time of tears and fears for many children. For little ones, it may be the first time away from home and family for a full day. They may have to ride a bus full of children they don't know. It can be daunting for child and parent.
For older children, the transition from elementary to middle or middle to high school, or the first days at a school in a new community, can be equally stomach-churning. Just finding the path to classrooms through unfamiliar hallways, being in corridors full of much bigger kids, or coping with combination locks and lockers is confusing and sometimes scary.
"In the summer, take your child to the school, show him the main classrooms, and see if you can meet the teacher," Cronan says. Many schools have new-student orientations, but if they've already passed, see if you can arrange a visit just to walk through the school.
Other tips: During the trial visit, locate the bathroom, homeroom, gym and offices of the school nurse, principal and counselors. Find out about bus routes, and be prepared for things not to go perfectly during the first few days.
"Let them know they're not the only one having a first day," Shu says. "A lot of people are in the same boat. They're not alone."
During the long days of summer, children may go to bed later and rise later than at other times of the year, so start now making the transition to school-appropriate sleep patterns, Cronan advises. It's hard for all ages, but middle and high school kids may be worse off -- they often have to be up by 6 a.m. to get ready for an early bus pickup. Cronan says a gradual approach is best: "Inch back (the bedtime), so the first week, go to bed by 11, then every few days move it back by half an hour. It's not rigid, but you can't do it the night before school starts."
How much sleep do they need?
(Hours a night)
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