Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series on brain health.
The new school year is now upon us. Time to return to days filled with more structure, less time with the family, and a lot of running around from school to activities and back. The weather will soon become cooler, days will become shorter, and tempers will flare.
With all these changes, how do you get off on the right foot? There are a number of websites dedicated to successful transitions back to school. One of my favorites is that of Arne Duncan, our US Secretary of Education, who recommends several key elements of a good back to school plan as well as a month-by-month guide that helps parents and coincides with brain health.
There are also guides that focus on mental health when returning to school, which are also important to healthy brain function. The key to a successful transition is to follow recommendations that improve and encourage healthy brains! In my new Brain Health Series, each of these key topics will be reviewed.
1. Get into a sleep routine: Sleep, or lack thereof, has a tremendous impact on way the brain functions. Lack of sleep can mimic ADHD symptoms and depress brain systems. In other words, you end up working at half speed with half the resources! So, give your child a healthy start and begin a good sleep routine one week prior to the start of school.
2. Practice Academics: We call this "getting in set." Creating a mental path or "mental set" for learning new information is essential to optimal brain health. It takes the guess work out of how to connect old and new information. Have your kids finish and/or review their summer work and look up new activities or projects that align with their grade's curriculum.
3. Reduce stress: Parents can set their kids up for success by reducing the stress of lingering requirements such as doctor's appointments, insurance, or purchasing school supplies. Stress reduction is an important brain health topic, and one that isn't just limited to stressful schedules. Those living in high stress environments or with high stress home lives are even more likely at risk for the negative impact of stress on the brain. Chemicals released during stress can actually kill brain cells! Do your best to alleviate stress in your child's environment and practice good coping skills for dealing with life's curve balls.
4. Live Healthy: We know that healthy eating is important, especially considering everything you eat is food for your brain! Your brain food is turned into chemicals that the brain uses to support your mood, learning, problem solving, and much more. Teach your kids about how to choose good foods that will stimulate their thinking.
5. Stay Fit: Although national fitness month is in May, kids should practice physical activity year round. This activity leads to chemical releases in the brain that stimulate daily cognitive performance. You actually think better! Have your children design a list of fun, fit activities that will motivate them to move more.
6. Make your school and homework spaces beautiful: This recommendation is inspired by Arne Duncan. The set-up of your work space can have an impact on your mood, encourage social connectedness, and enhance creativity…or not depending on the environment. The space in which you work, therefore, has the power to stimulate brain growth and connection. See how you and your child can volunteer to make fun spaces within your school or work with your child to design a fun, stimulating space to complete schoolwork at home.
7. Stay connected: As recommended in the back-to-school plan, having actively involved parents increases your child's likelihood of success. Similarly, connecting with others and supporting your child's social growth and connectedness can even protect them from brain problems decline later in life. In addition, the social interactions assist in being able to think more abstractly, as it provides a context and meaning for learning new information. So, volunteer at school where you can. You could also set up a play date for your child with a peer from school to encourage friendships and good social skills development.
8. Model feelings and emotion management: Mental health and well-being is just as important as academic and fitness success. Anxiety can decrease your child's ability to use their brain effectively and depression can dampen learning in and out of the classroom. Mental health problems reduce the brain's ability to think and can negatively impact physical health as well. It's important to screen your child for negative thinking, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Be aware of the issues your child may be facing at school and how you can help.
Healthy brains are essential to the success of our children. Start the new school year right by promoting brain health in your kids. Your child's brain will thank you.