Dr Debra Hall Parkinson | Protect your child's mental health for the new school year
It is almost time for children to head back to school for the start of a new school year. This can be an exciting time for children and families, but changes in schools, class, teachers, friends and routines can also make it a stressful one. Mental health issues often arise during times of transition, so at this time, it is crucial for parents to tend to a child's mental health as you would their physical health. Properly preparing your child to go back to school can help to reduce the occurrences of some of these issues.
Establish a sleep routine early
Prepare your child for a successful start of school by getting them back on routines one to two weeks before school begins. Start sending them to bed at a consistent time every night and wake them earlier in the morning. This will ease the shock of waking up early when school actually starts. Settling them down before bedtime with a bath and reading to them may also help with a good night's rest. Also, ensure that all electronic devices are turned off before bedtime.
The optimal amount of sleep for younger children is 10 to 12 hours per night and for adolescents, eight to 10 hours each night. Children who do not get enough sleep may have difficulty concentrating and learning as well as they can.
Ensure nutritious meals
Ensure that your child has a healthy breakfast before going to school. Research has shown that children who eat breakfast function a lot better in school. They perform better academically, concentrate better and have more energy. It is also important for them to have healthy but child-friendly lunches to keep them energised throughout the day.
Develop good homework and study habits
Create an environment conducive to studying and doing homework. Children need a consistent workspace in a part of the home that is quiet and without distractions. Establish a household rule that television and other electronic devices stay off during homework time. Supervised use of the computer and Internet may be allowed if needed for study purposes. Be available to answer questions and offer assistance if needed, but never do your child's homework. Try to make studying a positive and enjoyable experience which can help your child to build confidence and improve mental health.
If your child is struggling with a particular subject(s), speak with the teacher about what can be done to help at home or at school. Difficulty focusing on or completing assignments could indicate a learning disability or behavioural problem such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), which may require assessment. This can be discussed with a teacher or your child's paediatrician.
Talk to your children
Parents/caregivers should speak with children about concerns they may have about going back to school. Discussing these issues may help to ease worries. If children are nervous about a new school classroom or teacher, take them to visit the school before the first day. Showing them where they will be dropped off and picked up each day, and talking them through the school day, may facilitate an easier transition. Don't forget to talk to them about the positives of going back to school, and get them involved in back-to-school shopping.
Tell your child what bullying is - being repeatedly picked on or teased by another child. This can be verbal or physical. Encourage children to talk about being bullied and always acknowledge their feelings about it. Teach them how to be assertive and encourage them to stay calm and walk away during difficult situations. Let them know who to ask for help - a trusted teacher or guidance counsellor - and ensure that bullying is reported to school officials. Encouraging children to foster good friendships, monitoring social media activity, and involving them in extra-curricular activities may also help to counteract bullying.
Deterioration in school performance, fighting to avoid going to school and becoming disobedient or aggressive may be signs that your child is being bullied or possibly having learning difficulties. If you notice these signs, be sure to speak to your child's paediatrician, teacher or mental health professional to help throughout the process.
- Dr Debra Hall-Parkinson is consultant paediatrician at The Paediatric Place. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.