A Column from the Boston Public Health Commission
Hot summer days have meant hours of fun for the children of Boston. But, cooler mornings, advertisements for backpack sales, and the winding down of summer camps can mean only one thing: the new school year is upon us. While each student has his or her own list of “must have” school supplies, there are a few things that families can keep in mind to ensure that their student goes back to school as prepared, healthy, and as safe as possible.
Before beginning the new school year, check with your pediatrician to confirm that your child is up to date with all recommended immunizations for their age. Vaccines are the proven safe and effective way to protect your children from many serious infections that they may be exposed to in the classroom, school bus, or school yard. Pertussis, the bacteria that causes whooping cough, for instance, infected more than 41,000 Americans in 2012, and caused 18 deaths, mostly in young children. Middle school and high school outbreaks of whooping cough, can be prevented by giving 11- and 12-year old children the Tdap vaccine, to “boost” their immunity when the protection from the vaccines they received as infants and preschoolers is waning.
Another important way to stay healthy is to get the influenza vaccine. Either the flu shot, or the flu nasal-spray vaccine, is the single best way to protect your student and your family from influenza, an infection which causes more hospitalizations and deaths among American children than any other vaccine-preventable disease. All children over 6 months should receive the flu vaccine. Kids under age five years and children with a chronic illness such as asthma or developmental delay, are at high-risk for having severe flu symptoms and should receive the flu vaccine as soon as it is available, usually by mid-September.
Being healthy isn’t just about physical health. Mental health during the school year is also incredibly important. Stressors such as bullying can affect a child’s performance in the classroom and at home. Keep an open dialogue with your child about bullying and seek help should your child experience trouble at school. The Boston Public Schools Bullying Prevention Hotline at (617) 592-2378 is available to provide resources to both parents and kids experiencing bullying in school and also as a means to report instances of teasing.
It’s not just kindergarteners who may be nervous about starting the new school year. Starting another year, moving to a new classroom and meeting new friends can be as stressful as starting a new job. Help your children mentally prepare by practicing their school routine during the last week of summer vacation. Help set their internal “clock” by getting them to bed early and waking them up according to their daily school routine. Reading a story to your children at the end of a busy day is still one of the best ways to settle them down for bed. In general, 4- to 9-year olds need at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep; older children need about 9 to 10 hours of sleep every night. Well-rested students are more attentive in class and perform better academically.
Whether your child walks, receives a ride, bikes, or drives to school, getting there safely is everyone’s priority. Walkers should be reminded to cross streets at pedestrian crosswalks and to look for walk signals. School bus riders should not cross the street in front of the bus unless they can be seen by the bus driver. Student cyclists should always wear helmets and follow the rules of the road. If your child is driving to school, help your teen to follow Massachusetts’ graduated driving laws designed to keep teen drivers safe when their risk for crashing is greatest: during the first six months of their licensure, at nighttime, and when they are driving with other teenagers in the car. Be a good example and always wear your seatbelt and insist that your children do, too. Talk to your teen about never drinking and driving and never getting into a car with a driver who may be under the influence of alcohol or other substances.
Heading back to school is an exciting time of year, with new teachers and new opportunities. To succeed, our kids need to stay happy and safe– and always, stay kids at heart. With that in mind, let’s do our best to keep them healthy and always ready to learn.
Dr. Huy Nguyen is the Medical Director at the Boston Public Health Commission and a pediatrician at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center.