Keep your kids healthy as they head back to school

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BENNINGTON, Vt. — Melissa Prouty pores over patient charts at her Bennington office, and clearly has a lot on her mind these days.

Her thoughts are not just on her work as a family nurse practitioner, but also as a mother who is starting to gear up her fourth-grader for a return to the classroom, just after Labor Day.

For Prouty and many other parents, it's not just about school schedules and meals and teachers. It's also considering how best to prepare for the school year in terms of awareness of health risk factors, which can affect any child this time of year.

"At the beginning of the school year kids are particularly susceptible to any viral illness due to the change in their schedule," Prouty said. "Adjusting to the school routine can make kids tired and stressed, making them vulnerable to illness."

The susceptibility to illness, Prouty continued, is often rooted in daily routines. In the summer, it's difficult to maintain the school year schedule of bedtimes and consistent wake up times. She recommended trying to get back to the so-called "school-year routine" a week or two prior to the start of school. This helps reduce the stress and fatigue kids experience with a sudden change.

Once in school, personal hygiene becomes another critical factor to help ward off vulnerability of illness, according to newly retired Bennington Middle School head nurse Nancy Coleman, who also is the 2017 State of Vermont School Nurse of the Year.

"Once kids are back to school they are susceptible to anything that can be spread through the air or by touch," Coleman said. "Examples would be colds, flu, and strep throat. Frequent hand washing of both students and adults is key. Teachers can help spread the word and provide time for students to wash their hands."

JoAnn Appel, a nurse at Bennington Middle School who worked for Coleman for many years, concurred with her former boss' assessment, and added further preventative advice.

"Getting outside and being active is good for children's health and well-being," Appel said. "Cutting down in screen time can help reduce stress and promote better sleep habits to ensure proper rest. Proper hydration and balanced nutrition are also key to good levels of energy."

Appel, who is also a nurse in a busy family practice during her summers, said parents should make sure that all immunizations are up-to-date, and to schedule child wellness visits with their family physician on recommended schedules.

Programmed medical visits are important, but so is assessing acute illness, said Gail Cohen, a school nurse in the Mount Anthony Union system in Bennington who also deals with early education students.

"Take kids' complaints seriously and assess your child before the school day," Cohen said. "A somatic complaint may be real or it may be something else. The student may be able to go to school but there may be something for thoughtful discussion later with the child directly or a health care professional."

Cohen, who also practiced for years in primary care practices as a nurse practitioner, agreed with the prior recommendations of her colleagues

"I can't emphasize enough the need for sleep," Cohen said. "A good night's sleep helps with both health status and ability to learn. Good hand washing is key, as well. It's the first line of defense against communicable disease. Our early ed students wash their hands as soon as they arrive in the classroom and throughout the day. I would encourage some form of this practice for older students, too."

School safety, Cohen added, is another factor for overall student well-being when returning to campus in the fall.

"Safety can be improved by giving returning students advance information about the school building, the playground, et cetera, even if they have heard it before," Cohen said. "This helps sets boundaries for your children, too."

And along with safety, as children advance in age and are more involved with sports, physical injury takes on another element of the school life, said Prouty, whose daughter is a gymnast.

"The risk of injury is increased if kids, especially student athletes, have not kept up with some kind of conditioning during the summer," Prouty said. "Sprains and strains are common as kids resume practice and games. Reminding kids to warm up properly and not overdo it will help reduce their risk of injury."

But for all the permutations of preventative actions, Prouty was quick to note that overall, addressing a child's health as the new school year begins comes down to three very basic elements.

"To help keep kids healthy, proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and good hygiene are critical," she said.

--Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias

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