Tips for the Healthy Wellbeing of You and Your Children
When most people think of back to school, they think of the never-ending supply list: pencils, colored pencils, erasers, folders, markers, lined paper, spiral and composition notebooks, binders, or if you are a child of the 80s like me, the Trapper Keeper with matching pencil case and hand-picked folders. One did not DARE show up on the first day of school without the perfect Trapper Keeper.
And let us not forget about the optional “Classroom Donation List”: copy paper, colored cardstock, disinfectant wipes, tissues, additional pencils, classroom prizes, and Ziplock bags (variety of sizes). If that is not enough, the list continues if you include new clothes, shoes, backpacks, lunch boxes, water bottles, and the 24-pack of the “must have” gel pens so your student can take notes in every-single-color . . . “BUT MOOOOMMMMM!!! I NEEEEDDDD these!!”
While it is important that students be prepared for school with the proper supplies, it is even more important that their mental well-being is just as prepared. As a life coach, elementary school educator, and former anxious elementary school/middle school/high school nervous-wreck, I want to share with you some simple tips for supporting the mental well-being of children from preschool to middle school and beyond.
Take a Breath
I remember a few years ago when fidget spinners started showing up in the school supply aisles. The rationale was that they “help kids concentrate.” While fidgets, like spinners and pop-its, shift students’ attention to one task – spinning the metal structure around a ball-bearing or endlessly popping the bubbles from one side of the shape to another – I have never found that they helped children concentrate on their actual schoolwork.
When my students and life-coaching clients are having trouble concentrating or just need a moment to re-center themselves from busy thoughts, we start with the breath. Our breath is something we always have with us. Teaching children how to use their breath to help them stay calm and refocus in any situation is quick and easy.
Try these three simple steps:
Step 1: Drop your jaw. This stimulates the vagus nerve, which is basically the highway between your brain, heart, and your digestive system. A significant function of the vagus nerve is to calm the body and take the brain out of fight or flight mode, allowing us to stay calm and make better decisions.
Step 2: Relax your tongue. This may sound silly, but simply relaxing your tongue (just gently, not like a dog with its head out of the car window) diminishes self-talk, calms the inner critic, and builds up our inner coach.
Step 3: Inhale for a count of one and exhale for a count of two. This pushes out the carbon dioxide and increases oxygen intake for higher cortical processing (which is fancy for positive cognitive behaviors and responses). Repeat as needed.
These three steps can be done anywhere and at any time. Teaching your child to use their breath puts them in control.
Take a Drink
It may seem like a no-brainer that kids need to stay hydrated. However, if your child is anything like my son, he can easily get caught up in his day and go hours without drinking water. There are often days when even I get home from work only to discover that my 40 oz Hydro flask is still nearly full! Signs of even moderate dehydration include headaches, low energy levels, and changes in mood and mental status.
A 2011 review of 7-to 9-year-olds in a school setting found that insufficient hydration resulted in physical and mental complaints, including anxiety, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, headache, fatigue, short-term memory loss, and short attention span.1 Encourage your child to drink often and next time your child is having big emotions or not operating at their best, consider intervening with some H2O.
With growing brains and growing bodies, what our children eat directly impacts their mental well-being, particularly sugar. Sugar intake is increasingly linked to poor mental health. In addition to health problems such as obesity and tooth decay, sugar shows addictive properties and causes unhealthy microbiome changes in our gut that are linked to a growing number of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD. And if that’s not enough, excessive sugar may harm brain function and contribute to forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Because sugar is hiding in many foods such as cereals, breads, fruit snacks, bars, drinks, and rice, it’s important to limit the number of processed foods and sweets we make available to our children, and quite frankly, to ourselves. Some people find that ordering their groceries online helps solve the problem of grabbing the impromptu bags of chips or cookies that are calling to them on the endcap display at the grocery store. Others find that planning meals and snacks ahead of time can help to add needed structure to their eating routines. If unhealthy food choices are not easily accessible at home, it is much easier to make better decisions, especially when you are hungry.
What about at school? At our house, we have gotten into the habit of packing healthy lunches and snacks for our children at night to avoid the early morning hustle. Often, our children pack their own lunches. We also use lunchboxes with compartments so they can easily have a variety of fresh foods without packing them in separate containers.
While I fully understand that feeding kids is “easier said than done” and my family is not perfect by any means, I feel strongly that educating ourselves and our children about how our food choices can impact our emotional well-being is as important as educating them about finances.
If you have ever seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you know that Gus Portokalos’ solution for everything was to “put some Windex on it!” Much like Windex in the movie, sleep is a cure-all for many ailments. Not feeling well? Get some sleep. Cannot decide? Get some sleep. Feeling upset, nervous, or any emotion that is less than desirable? GET SOME SLEEP! When we sleep, our body is healing and our brain is processing our day, keeping what we need and ditching the rest.
When we sleep, our subconscious mind is doing its best work because our conscious mind cannot interfere. Professional sleep consultant Jennifer Heger of Golden Slumbers Pediatric Sleep Consulting2 recommends 10-12 hours a night for early elementary students, 9-10 hours a night for later elementary, 8-10 hours for middle school and high school. She also stresses the importance of a consistent bedtime and sticking to that bedtime regardless of the day of the week (and yes, this includes weekends, too).
Spending time with people we enjoy can do wonders for our mental state. The same holds true with kids. Kids thrive on making new friends and seeing old ones. The other day at the park, my 9-year-old introduced me to another boy about his age. The well-mannered boy put his hand out to shake my hand, and, when I asked him if they knew each other from school, the boy’s response was, “No we just met, and I’m actually from Texas, but we’re friends now.” Then both boys took off down the swirly slide and continued their epic battle with their invisible weapons. Even short-lived interactions with peers can build confidence and provide children’s brains with a dose of dopamine and serotonin, two types of neurotransmitters in the brain that are both heavily associated with happiness.
As mentioned in Stephanie Wildman’s February blog post, doctors have found that too much screen time is not healthy for cognitive, social-emotional, and overall development. While it might seem unreasonable to eliminate screen time altogether, it’s important to lessen the amount of time spent on screens watching tv, playing games, interacting with social media apps, and texting . . . just to name a few.
Brain scans of children who spend even a small amount of time on a screen show negative effects on the frontal lobe of the brain. Why is this a big deal? The frontal lobe governs executive functions, such as planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control. In addition, this part of the brain undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties, that unfortunate sweet spot where most teens are getting their first phone and spending more time gaming and using social media.
According to Psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., frontal lobe development largely determines success in every area of life—from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills. Whether we want to admit it or not, screen time can have an enormous impact on the mental well-being of our students and it’s important to educate ourselves and our children so they understand the impact of their decisions and their devices.
Let’s Get Physical
It is no secret that kids love to move. Just open the doors to any trampoline park and you will be greeted with bouncing bodies and flipping feet. Exercise is not only great for our bodies, but can increase cognitive development, academic growth, and self-control. In my classroom, every student has a chair that swivels, rocks, bounces, or rolls. I have intentionally replaced the stationary classroom chairs with swivel chairs, stability balls, wobble stools, and rolling office chairs to accommodate for this need to move. In addition to recess, students also take “brain breaks” throughout the day to provide students an opportunity to move.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and releases chemicals that are natural stress fighters. When children exercise, aggression and anxiety are shown to decrease while confidence and the ability for students to adapt increases. If those benefits were not enough, children who exercise also fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Let’s Get Visual
One more way to support your child’s mental well-being is through visualization. Parents of my students and coaching clients often report to me that, for a variety of reasons, their child experiences anxiousness, nervousness, and other unwanted feelings about attending school. Taking a few moments before bed or in the morning to help your student set their intentions for the day can really help ease their mind and get them ready to be at their best.
If you need some ideas on how to do that, try these three steps:
Step 1: Have your child think about how they want to be as a student/friend/person throughout the day. Some responses might be “focused,” “caring,” “hard-working,” etc. Have them just choose one.
Step 2: Ask them to describe what that is like when they are focused/caring/hard-working. Get them to describe what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, etc. Get them to be as vivid and detailed as possible.
Step 3: Ask them how that feels inside of them when they are being focused/caring/hard-working.
Back to School Ready
When giving the pre-game pep talk, my college soccer coach used to say, “Control the controllables.” What she meant was for us to do things during the game that we had control over. We could not control how well the other team played, but we could control how fast we ran, how well we passed the ball, and how hard we played to win the ball back or score a goal. This strategy worked for soccer, and it also works for supporting your child’s mental wellness.
We have very little control over the school day, but we can set kids up for success by helping them stay hydrated and well nourished, connecting them with friends and disconnecting them from devices, teaching them to breathe and visualize, and making sure they get enough sleep and exercise. Just like an investment account, these little things, done with intention, will have a great return on your investment.
So, this year, when you get that back-to-school supply list, remember that mental preparation is just as necessary as physical preparation. And Trapper Keepers ARE still cool, no matter what your kid says!