7 Back to School Essentials

For our family back to school time means back to more regular routines and schedules. I consider this the perfect opportunity for families everywhere to create an awareness of healthy habits that will foster a successful school year.  

I’ve tweaked our Simple 7 Lifestyle Habits with school in mind. These essential habits will benefit all school-aged children, from preschoolers to grad-schoolers, and the parents and grandparents who support them.  

I challenge you to implement these suggestions and see how it impacts you and your family over the next few months.

Think Well:

When I discuss the “think well” pillar, I typically focus on attitude, outlook, and skills that revolve around better thought processes but today I want to focus on improving brain nutrition that will help us think better. We all know that we want the brain to be at the top of its game during school time. There are some essential supplements that you can include to help nourish the brain.

Essential Fatty Acids

Our body cannot make omega-3s which is why they are considered essential; this means that we must get them from the food we eat. There are three types of omega-3s, they are ALA, DHA and EPA with DHA. These fats are found in plant and animal foods like fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and fruits like avocados, olives, and coconut.  

When we eat plant-based foods containing omega-3s (ALAs), our body must convert these to EPA and DHA to benefit us.

The conversion rate of plant-based omega-3s is very low, about 6% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA making plant-based omega-3s not the ideal source for brain healthy essential fatty acids. 

We need omega-3s for brain health and cognitive function to reduce the risk of anxiety and depression and ADHD.

Eating fish and seafood is the best way to obtain them. Often, this can be difficult in a child’s diet unless your family is already consuming fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines regularly.  

The next best way to get adequate essential fatty acids is to supplement. 

Vitamin D

Most North Americans are deficient in Vitamin D, even those who spend time in the sun.

You’ve probably heard that Vitamin D is essential for immune function but did you know that Vitamin D helps support the healthy development of the brain, eyes. and nerves in children up to 12 years old? It’s important for cognitive health and brain function, and the development and maintenance of bones and teeth.

Unlike most nutrients, it isn’t easy to get an adequate amount of vitamin D from food. Still, the good news is that our body can manufacture vitamin D. It’s commonly referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” because sunlight is the best way to get vitamin D in our bodies. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, because of our geographic location and the fact that we spend most of our days indoors, we just aren’t getting enough sunlight to produce the required daily amount of D, which is why I suggest that the whole family supplement with vitamin D.

Adults should ideally get their vitamin D blood levels tested to get an ideal dose but it is generally safe to take 4,000 to 5,000 iu per day. This would be an appropriate dose for children over 16 years old as well. Younger children generally are dosed at approximately 35 iu/pound of body weight.

Sleep Well

Sleep is absolutely essential for our well-being. But the question always is, “How Much Sleep Do I Need?”

The amount of sleep a person needs depends on many factors; here are some general guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation:

Newborns (0-3 months) 14-17 hours a day

Infants (4-11 months) require about 12-15 hours a day

Toddlers (1-2 years) need about 11-14 hours a day.

Pre-school children (3-5 years) require 10-13 hours a day.

School-age children (6-13 years) require 9-11 hours a day.

Teenagers (14-17 years) need about 8-10 hours on average.

Young Adults (18-25 years) need 7 to 9 hours a night

Adults (26-64 years) require 7 to 9 hours a night

Older Adults (65+ years) need 7 to 8 hours a night.

Why Sleep Matters

Being sleep deprived impairs our judgment, lessens our reaction time, creates memory problems, can lead to depression, weakens our immune system, can make us more accident-prone, and increases our perception of pain. Prolonged poor sleep can even add to the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Establishing a bedtime routine and be the most important thing you can do to make sleep a consistent priority.

When we follow consistent sleeping patterns, we are more likely to be attentive and productive the next day.

Pre-Sleep Routine

If bedtime is a struggle every night, try developing a “pre-sleep” routine to help your family slow down from the day’s activities. This routine could include the following activities:

  • Reading Time- either alone or read-a-load time. We have found that the whole family can enjoy reading a good book together in the evenings.
  • Listening to calming instrumental music can help create a calm environment. 
  • A warm bath or shower is another way to relax the body naturally.
  • Reduce noise, dim the lights and refrain from using electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedtime and wake times consistent. Waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day, even on weekends, will get you into a rhythm.

Reduce Screen Time

Managing screen time in the evening is important.  Research is now showing that screentime can cause language delays, among other negative implications. Screen time in the evening is a problem because electronics emit blue light. Blue light makes our body think it’s midday, and so it suppressed the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. This messes up our natural circadian rhythm and disrupts healing sleep cycles. In other words, it makes it even harder for kids, teens, and adults to wake up the next day. 

If your child is old enough to have a cell phone or other electronics, keep those items out of the bedroom. Have your children hand over electronics at a time you’ve decided on each night so that they aren’t receiving texts or other sleep-disturbing alerts or messages during the night.  

If late-night homework is a must, use blue-blocking glasses to block as much blue light as possible. You can even set many computers to night-shift mode, and the blue light will automatically be reduced.

Breath Well

Anxiety is an all too common occurrence in our society. But anxiety isn’t always bad. Anxiety is our body’s way of keeping us safe. I know you’ve heard of the fight or flight response; we could also call that anxiety. The problem with anxiety in our modern world is that so many things are coming at us, both virtually and physically at times that our brains go into overdrive.

This is when the skill of breathing comes in. 

For most of us, breathing is an automatic process that we hardly notice. However, the simple act of inhaling and exhaling can significantly impact our mood and thoughts. Deep breathing has long been used as a relaxation technique, and it’s helpful for both children and adults.

 Learning to breathe may be the simplest health practice of all, with huge benefits. Breathing exercises are a valuable tool for anyone at any age.

We can all use breathing to help us throughout the day, whether we’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, need to relax or go to sleep, calm down, or even pause and reset when we get agitated. 

Breathing exercises can help diminish stress and anxiety by:

  • Relaxing the body
  • Refocusing the mind
  • Reducing stress and anxiety
  • Lowering heart rate
  • Increase the body’s oxygen levels, which can have calming effects.

Deep breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest part of the nervous system- the opposite of fight or flight)

One of the most important things to keep in mind when teaching or practicing breathing techniques is to practice when you or your child is calm. By practicing when we feel good, we will be ready to use this tool in moments of stress or anxiety. 

Breathing practice can be a great thing to add to your bedtime routine.

Here are two of my favorite ways to teach calm, slow breathing techniques. 

BUBBLES

Blowing gently to create bubbles is an excellent way to be playful and breathe deeply. Kids have to blow carefully and slowly to make the bubbles, which is a major reason why I like using it to help kids take deep breaths.

BOX BREATHING

You can draw a box (square) on a piece of paper or in the air while sitting or lying down.

Start at the bottom right of the square.

Breathe in for four counts as you trace the first side of the square

Hold your breath for four counts as you trace the second side of the square

Breathe out for four counts as you trace the third side of the square

Hold your breath for four counts as you trace the final side of the square

You just completed one deep breath!

Eat Well

Eat More Color!

Sadly, many kids’ diets lack fruit and vegetables and contain far too many processed, high-sugar foods. I challenge you to set a goal for your family to have at least half your plate loaded with veggies at dinner by the end of the school year. Work up to it one meal at a time!

Eating a variety of colorful plant foods ensures that your child consumes a ton of phytonutrients. Phytonutrients come in the thousands, and they’re the beneficial compounds in plants that give them their unique taste, texture, and color. They have hundreds of benefits for kids. 

Some phytonutrients support the immune system, act as antioxidants, protecting our cells from oxidative damage caused by toxins; others are anti-inflammatory and tame chemicals that would otherwise increase inflammation. 

The fiber in plants also has exceptional benefits for supporting the growth of beneficial microbes in our gut, and a healthy gut equals a healthy immune system.

You can find phytonutrients in fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, legumes, spices, and whole grains.

Here are some of my favorite kid-friendly recipes ideas that are colored by veggies.

Some of my favorite kid-friendly recipes include this Double Rainbow Smoothie, yummy Green Smoothie Muffins, Cookie Dough Hummus for dipping sliced apples or celery, Chocolate Chia Pudding, or try this Kid-Friendly Meal Plan.

Move Well

The quantity of movement children and teens get greatly diminishes during the school year and the amount of time spent outdoors. 

Nature is something that I encourage everyone to get more of in their lives. Spending even just a few minutes outside every day is balancing and healing to our souls.

Getting outside in nature for kids has many research-backed benefits. According to a paper from Aarhus University in Denmark, kids who grow up surrounded by nature have a 55% less risk of developing various mental disorders later in life. Being in nature has also been shown to benefit children with hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder by helping them have better focus and attention.

The great outdoors also helps us be more resilient, to better withstand and recover from challenging situations.

Being in nature is also highly beneficial to our microbiome because it exposes us to microbes we wouldn’t come into contact with indoors. Coming into contact with diverse microbes helps train the immune system and making it less reactive. Children and adults, for that matter, who play or work in the dirt have greater microbial diversity than those who don’t.

Love Well

Connection is important, especially when families may spend most of their waking hours away from each other.  

By making real-life connections with people that we can see and touch and hear, we eliminate those feelings of loneliness. Human beings are “social animals” and, therefore, naturally seek the companionship of others as part of their well-being.

Cultivate opportunities for connection when you are together in the evenings. Family time creates a sense of connection and belonging. Research shows that when kids are part of a family unit that spends time together, they are more likely to feel supported, safe, and loved unconditionally and have increased self-esteem and better academic outcomes. 

Strive to gather the family for 20–25 minutes at least five times per week (family meals, outings, and game/movie nights all count). Here are a couple of ideas that foster connection.

Eat Together: 

In our family, eating home-cooked meals are super important. We have always had the tradition of eating dinner together as a family. Because we’ve made it a priority, it happens. If you have evening activities, family meals may be a challenge. I challenge you to figure out how to prioritize family mealtime, even if you start with only one day every week. It is a fantastic time to cultivate relationships and create a space for deep and meaningful conversations.

Everyday tasks can create connections:

Set up some distraction-free moments by making family rules about phones at the dinner table, turning the TV off while eating, and unplugging the earbuds on your teenagers. This doesn’t have to be all evening or even every night. Try doing this while you eat dinner, do the dishes, or packing lunches for the next day.  

Hugs and Kisses and High Fives 

Little kids are cuddly and cute, and we often can’t get enough of hugging and kissing them. It’s the teenagers that miss out on this connection because they may start to pull away, act too “cool” or get that funky teen smell. They need physical connections just as much as they did when they were little.

Get sneaky to connecting with teens by “bumping” into them as you clean up the kitchen, give them high-fives for completing simple tasks, or just being their awesome selves; side hugs and family groups hugs work well too.

Play Well

As young children, our brains develop and maintain neural connections in relation to our movement and play. Brain cell connections are lost or pruned away as a result of limited activity or stimulation. “Move it or lose it” is true for both children and adults. The nervous system does not even mature until somewhere between the ages of 15 to 20, so families can continue to provide a variety of active play opportunities through those years to promote further brain growth.

Little children usually don’t need encouragement to play, but teens and young adults often stop playing to stay focused on school and work and plan for the future.  

Play is not just for younger children; teens and adults need play too. Help your teens tap into play more often by avoiding overscheduling so that they have unstructured time to hang out with friends in person and pursue hobbies and interests just for fun. 

Research suggests that play — especially when it is freely chosen, unstructured, and personally directed — is linked to increased cognitive skills, physical health, self-regulation, language abilities, social skills, and empathy. Learn more about these benefits of play at The Genius of Play.

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