7 Back-to-school Essentials for a Healthier New Year

With summer coming to an end and the first day of school on the horizon, now’s the time for back-to-school shopping. Along with the usual notebooks and pens, experts recommend a few staples, such as pocket-size hand sanitizers and boxes of tissues, to keep your kids safe and healthy. So before you hit the stores, consider adding the items below to your school supply list.

1. A padded backpack. Kids choose their backpacks for color and style, so it’s up to parents to ensure they make the safest pick. A heavy or ill-fitting bag can pull on muscles and ligaments, says Dr. Danielle Cooley, an osteopathic family physician and assistant professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine. That can lead to neck and back pain -- and, over time, even spinal problems. When choosing a backpack, Cooley recommends looking for:

· A padded back. The cushioning helps to protect the back and relieve the strain of carrying a heavy load.

· Wide, padded straps. “Narrow straps dig into the shoulders,” says Cooley. Adjust the straps so that the bag rests in the middle of your child’s back. A bag that hangs too low on the spine can lead to misalignment, pain and posture problems, such as sway back, explains Cooley.

· Multiple compartments. Extra pockets help evenly distribute the weight of the books and supplies. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a full backpack should weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of your child’s bodyweight (for a 60-pound child, that’s around 10 pounds). So encourage your daughter to swap books in her locker between classes.

2. Sunscreen or sun-protective clothing. “Don’t forget the sunscreen for those bright days, especially at the start of the school year,” says Dr. Lisa Martin, an associate professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine and a pediatrician at Loyola University Health System in Chicago. Recess tends to be scheduled between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest. And just one bad burn can double your child’s chances of developing melanoma -- the most dangerous form of skin cancer -- later in life, reports the National Cancer Institute.

But before you slip that sunscreen into your kids’ backpacks, check with the school administration. Because the FDA regulates sunscreen as an over-the-counter drug, some districts require a doctor’s note or don’t allow children to apply it at school. If that’s the case, make sure to apply a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 before sending them off in the morning.

3. Medication refills. If your child has a condition that may require treatment in school (such as asthma or food allergies), make sure to have a new refill to give the school nurse at the start of the school year. “You don’t want them to have an expired medication if there’s an emergency,” says Martin.

4. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The average child comes down with six to eight colds a year, and many of those viruses are spread in the classroom, says Martin. The best way to protect against those germs: Teach kids to wash their hands after bathroom breaks, recess and gym class, as well as before eating.

Unfortunately, many children forget that lesson. In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study found that only about half of middle- and high-school students scrub up after using the restroom! The solution? Pack pocket-size containers of hand sanitizer in your child’s backpack, so she can fend off germs throughout the day.

5. Tissues. To prevent the spread of germs, make sure your child always has a box of tissues on hand (bonus: they come in fun back-to-school designs, so your kids will be excited to use them!). And teach him to sneeze or cough into one: In two out of three cases, people sneeze into their hands, show researchers from New Zealand. But that practice contaminates the hands, which may infect all the surfaces your child touches in the classroom. (Caught without a tissue? Remind him to sneeze or cough into the crook of his elbow.) Your kid can also use those tissues to wipe down his desk daily.

6. Insulated lunch bag. A turkey-and-cheese sandwich is a brown bag staple, but it can also turn into a breeding ground for bacteria if it’s not kept at the proper temperature. Because of their developing immune systems, children are up to five times more likely to develop a case of food poisoning than the average adult, reports research in the journal Pediatrics.

That’s why it’s important to keep their midday meals cool. Pack their lunches in an insulated bag, and store them in the fridge until they head out the door. “Using an ice pack can also help prevent food-borne illness,” says Martin.

7. Breakfast staples. While you’re scrambling to get used to your new school schedule, make sure a healthy breakfast isn’t lost in the morning scramble. Studies show that kids who fuel up before their first class learn -- and retain -- more than those who skip the meal. And what you put on that plate makes a difference too: Dining on oatmeal boosts brainpower more than eating a sugary cereal, according to a Tufts University study. That’s because oatmeal delivers longer-lasting energy, which may help your child pay closer attention in her morning classes.

Martin recommends stocking up on portable breakfast staples that your kids can grab if they’re running late. A few options: drinkable yogurt, fruit, whole-grain cereal (pre-portioned into bags) and breakfast bars.

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Be Back-to-school Prepared: Your Weekly Attack Plan

There’s no question that the transition from summer to the start of the school year can be a tumultuous time for parents and children. But it doesn’t have to be: With the right strategies, back-to-school season can be happy, healthy and stress-free. To make your life easier, we asked the experts for advice on how to prepare. Use their timeline to get your kids on the right schedule -- and in the right mindset -- for success all year long.

Back-to-school Preparation: One Month Before

A few weeks before the first day of school, take the kids back-to-school shopping. “Involve them in the process of picking out supplies and clothes,” says Candice Sasaki, a second grade teacher at Captain James Lawrence Elementary School in Burlington, N.J. “Showing your excitement will ultimately get your child excited about school, as well.”

If summer means later bedtimes in your home, now’s the time to gradually adjust to an earlier schedule. “For most ages, 8 p.m. is a good bedtime,” says Sasaki. “That allows your child to get enough sleep to be refreshed in the morning.” It also allows them to pay better attention in class: According to one recent study of preschoolers by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, those who had a consistent bedtime performed better at math, reading and language skills than those who didn’t.

To help your kids snooze more soundly, start winding down after dinner. Research published in the journal Sleep Medicine showed that kids who went to bed after 9 p.m., had a television in their room or consumed caffeine during the day took longer to nod off and got less sleep overall. So switch off electronics -- including computers, video games and television -- at least an hour before bed.

Back-to-school Preparation: Two Weeks Before

To prevent a meltdown the first week of school, it’s smart to get your child emotionally prepared for the classroom now. With young children, reinforcing positive behaviors -- like paying attention, having patience and following directions -- will help them understand the way they’re expected to act at school, says Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a professor of clinical psychology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

“At the dinner table, for example, let them know how proud you are of them when they’re able to stay seated through the whole meal,” explains Gurwitch. “Remind them that their teacher will be proud of them when they use these behaviors at their desks, too.”

It’s also a good idea to start spending some more time reading with young children and encouraging older kids to do more reading on their own. For those who’ve never had homework, introduce a structured period of time in the afternoon or evening to work on activity books together. And if your child had a summer reading assignment, make sure he is caught up -- and won’t have to rush to finish at the last minute.

Back-to-school Preparation: One Week Before

Call your child’s school and ask if you can briefly meet the teacher and see the classroom. “I set up the classroom weeks in advance,” says Sasaki. “And I encourage parents to bring their little ones to visit me before the first day.” Knowing who their teacher will be can help them feel more comfortable and secure on the first day. Checking out the teacher’s web page, if there’s one available, can also give you an idea of what else you need to prepare.

For children entering middle school for the first time, says Gurwitch, two of the biggest sources of anxiety are having a locker and changing classes. If possible, take your child to school during this week to test out his locker, and walk through the building so he knows where to go on the first day.

If you daughter is entering kindergarten or elementary school, put together a care package for her to keep in her backpack, recommends Dr. Charles Smith, a professor emeritus of family studies at Kansas State University and author of Raising Courageous Kids. It can include a supportive note from you, an inexpensive trinket that can serve as a security blanket and a box of tissues in a fun back-to-school design.

“Having something sentimental they can hold onto may help a very nervous child get over the fear of leaving home,” says Smith. “And emphasizing the use of tissues when kids sneeze or cough is important for teaching them good hygiene and for reducing the spread of germs.”

Back-to-school Preparation: The Night Before

Encourage your children to pick out their outfits for the first few days. With your help, have them lay out their clothes the night before to make getting dressed easier in the morning. “You might give them a few different options, but letting them make at least part of the decision is important for giving them a sense of responsibility,” says Gurwitch.

If you’re packing a snack or a lunch, check that you have everything you need before going to bed. Then set a wake-up time that will allow the whole family to be ready without rushing.

Back-to-school Preparation: On the Big Day

Prepare a healthy breakfast, and encourage your kids to discuss their expectations and concerns about the day. Most children are excited and nervous about school, says Smith, so try not to indulge their negative emotions. “Use positive words when talking about their new adventure,” explains Smith. “Avoid saying, ‘Don’t be scared,’ because that introduces the notion that there’s something to be fearful of. Instead, tell them how much fun they’re going to have and how brave and strong they are.”

Most important, says Smith, don’t let your children know if you’re feeling anxious or nervous: If you’re high-strung or weepy when dropping them off, chances are they will be too. Instead, pack some tissues to have on hand if either of you start to cry. Take lots of photos, send them off with a smile and don’t hang around after saying goodbye. Know your child is in good hands and will have a great time making friends and learning new things.

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Stop Back-to-School Stress

It’s that time of year again: Summer’s coming to a close, which means that the first day of school is around the corner. Whether your children are starting at a new school or returning to their stomping grounds, heading back into the classroom can be stressful. To make things easier on your entire family, try these moves to ease back-to-school stress.

1. Hit the playground. Before school starts up again, take your little ones to the school’s playground and let them run around. It will help familiarize them with their soon-to-be surroundings; the unknown is scary for kids. If your kid is starting at a new school, it’s also a good idea to take a classroom tour with her.

2. Make a play date with a classmate. Check with the school, a teacher or your neighborhood association to find other kids who will be in your child’s class and schedule a meet-up. That way, they’ll both have at least one familiar face in the classroom.

3. Adjust sleep schedules. To make the transition easier for you and your kids, a few weeks before school’s start, try to wake your children up closer to the time they’ll need to rise to get to school -- and set their bedtimes accordingly. Your kids should ideally be on their new schedules the week leading up to their first day.

4. Stay positive. During drop-off, reassure your child he’ll be safe at school. Remind him that his teacher will take care of him until you come to get him. Make sure that he knows the pick-up plan -- and don’t be late! If he’s still having a tough time saying goodbye, resist the temptation to compare him to other kids (“Look, Matt’s doing just fine”). And to avoid adding more stress to the situation, don’t shed your own tears in front of him -- wait until you’re out of sight if you’re feeling choked up.

5. Pay attention to his complaints. It takes a child about two weeks to adjust to a new situation and for the back-to-school stress to lighten. So if her whines and complaints about school persist much longer, you may want to consider consulting a child psychologist.

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