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MARKETPLACE:  Auto | Jobs | Personals | Yellow Pages  November 12, 2003
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How to Start the School Year Right
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By Gary Gately, HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 3 (HealthDayNews) -- As millions of American children return to the classroom after the long summer break, parents need to do their own homework to help ensure their kids' health, safety and success.

From getting enough sleep to getting the necessary vaccinations, from backpack safety to bus safety, from developing good homework habits to coping with bullies, back to school means much more than new clothes and supplies.

Some jitters are to be expected, especially if it's a new school. But parents should be mindful of warning signs of potentially more serious anxiety, experts say.

"It's one of the unattended, kind of hidden problems that kids face," says Patricia Saunders, a New York City clinical psychologist. "There is a disturbing number of children who are experiencing significant anxiety about going back to school."

To help diminish that discomfort, parents can point out the positive aspects of starting school: It will be fun. You'll see old friends and meet new ones, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

If anxiety persists for more than a few weeks, parents should talk to their children to try to find out what's bothering them, and consider contacting school officials and, possibly, a counselor, says Saunders, director of the Graham Windham Manhattan Mental Health Center.

She says parents should watch for changes in behavior, mood, appetite, sleep patterns and interests. "Parents need to take it beyond face value. These are flags, warning signs that something's going on with the kid," Saunders says.

"It just means that something is off, and parents really need to talk to them about it and let kids know it's OK to feel badly and to ask them, 'Are you worrying about something? Are you upset about something? Are you angry about something? Are you having scary thoughts or bad dreams?"

Asking such questions can reveal problems that might not come up otherwise.

Take victims of bullying, for instance. "Kids tend to feel it's their fault," Saunders says. "They're embarrassed about it. Kids of all ages are reluctant to tell parents about it."

But when parents know, they can give their children coping strategies, such as walking away, not showing emotion and, if necessary, speaking with teachers.

A healthy start to the new year also requires parents to take care of some basics right away.

Make sure your children's immunizations are up to date, and tell the school nurse about any health problems and whether medication must be taken during the school day. Also, promptly fill out and return health or emergency contact forms that the school sends home.

And remember that the backpack your child carries can be dangerous. Experts recommend wide, padded shoulder straps because narrow ones can cause pain and restrict circulation. Children should always use both shoulder straps, to guarantee proper balance and to avoid muscle strain and possibly curvature of the spine.

A padded back can help protect a child from sharp objects inside the backpack. Heavier items should be packed closest to the center, and the loaded backpack should never weigh more than 10 percent to 20 percent of the child's bodyweight, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

Also, take steps to make sure you child gets to school safely: Children should wait for the school bus to stop before approaching it, check for traffic before crossing the street and avoid walking around a moving bus.

It's also important to remember that what kids do before and after school affects their performance in the classroom, says Dr. Barbara Frankowski, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on School Health.

She suggests that parents limit television watching and Internet surfing -- so-called "screen time."

"Unless they're legitimately typing up their homework in front of the computer, I try to limit [TV and computer] time to less than three hours a day. And that'll be challenging for some people" says Frankowski, a Burlington, Vt., pediatrician.

TV also exposes kids to violence and ads for unhealthy food, contributes to obesity and takes away from potential homework time.

To help develop good homework and study habits, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you create a quiet environment conducive to homework, keep the TV out of the child's bedroom, and forbid TV viewing during homework time. Also, be there to answer questions and help, but don't do the homework.

Finally, make sure your child gets enough sleep. The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research recommends children aged 7 to 11 get at least nine hours each night. To meet that goal, the center urges parents to establish a regular bedtime; eliminate distractions such as a TV or computer from your child's room; avoid giving children big meals near bedtime; limit caffeinated beverages; and set aside quiet time for relaxation before bedtime.

More information

For more on preparing children for back to school, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics or the National PTA.

SOURCES: Patricia Saunders, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, director, Graham Windham Manhattan Mental Health Center, New York City; Barbara Frankowski, M.D., pediatrician, Burlington, Vt., and chairwoman, Committee on School Health, American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Copyright � 2003 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.

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