Back to school, better than ever

Setting the foundation for success with good study habits, healthy nutrition and more

You send your children off to school with hopes you’ll get through the year without squabbles over homework, computer time, or nonstop snacking. Unfortunately good intentions aren’t enough.
You need a concrete plan if you want your children to develop good study habits. And although child development experts recommend implementing a routine well before school starts, it’s not too late to point your children in the right direction. Being actively involved in children’s lives – modeling healthy habits – is an important step to helping them succeed in school and beyond.
“What works for one family doesn’t work for everyone else – everyone’s time commitments are different,” says Dr. Arvind Soni, a radiation oncologist at Lakeland Regional Cancer Center as well as a Polk County Medical Association member and the father of two young children. “The simplest thing to do is be active in the children’s lives: Their education, their upbringing and their play.”
Setting the foundation with good study habits
On a practical level, parents can help by teaching and reinforcing basic reading and math their children will need later in life. They also can make sure the child has supervised access to a computer, can scroll and use the keyboard.
“I think everybody needs some reading time. I certainly believe in it. I think we never never stop reading,” Diana Myrick, senior director of Polk County’s elementary schools.
“I would make reading and learning a daily routine and keep to a schedule. It should be something that is done every day . . . Just like brushing your teeth,” suggest Dr. Sergio B. Seoane, a family practitioner in Lakeland and Polk County Medical Association member.“Stay involved in your child’s studying . . . if you think it’s important then he/she will think it is important.”
The parents of school-age children can stay involved by keeping in contact with teachers so they’ll learn early if a problem develops, says Madonna Wise, district-wide specialist for guidance services with Polk County’s elementary schools. They also can keep abreast of homework assignments and progress through online grade tracking.
While parents may need to buy school supplies and project materials, they should resist the temptation to take charge.“We don’t want the parents to complete projects for them. Guide them with resources and be there. Don’t do it for them,” advises Myrick. When parents do more, they’re not really helping. “I’d rather see something I knew they [the children] did,” she says.
Effective study habits can vary from child to child.In Dr. Soni’s home, he and his wife Kavita encourage both the daughter and son to study at the same time. “If one child is playing it’s hard to get the other child to study,” Dr. Soni explains.
It’s a good idea to limit television and video games, especially a half hour before bedtime. “The mind is too active to quickly go to sleep. These kinds of games should be stopped well before going to bed,” says Dr. Daniel Haight, Polk County Health Department director and Polk County Medical Association member.
“Make TV viewing an active choice, make a specific choice. When the show you wanted to watch is over, turn off the TV,” Dr. Seoane advises. “Do not use the TV as background noise.  No TV in your kids’ bedrooms.”
Setting the foundation with good eating habits
A bedtime routine, good eating habits, and regular exercise are an important part of the mix. That means a balanced diet with protein, dairy, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.“If it comes out of a box or a plastic bag and it takes little or no time to prepare… you probably should not be eating it,” Dr. Seoane says.
For parents concerned about their kids’ nutrition options at home and at school, there’s welcome news. New nutritional requirements are effective in August, meaning school officials are getting creative to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption.
“We’re working with all of our districts now,” says Robin C. Safley, director of Food, Nutrition and Wellness for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “There are calorie limits… These kids may see smaller serving sizes.”
Polk’s public schools provide fresh fruits and vegetables through the Farm to School program. “Our students are used to seeing fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu. When we introduce a new item, we frequently use techniques like taste testing to allow students to sample the item before it is actually on the menu,” says Jenna Kaczmarski, school nutrition coordinator for the Polk County School Board.
Despite the new standards, they’ll still serve favorites like pizza and chicken nuggets.“Eating a slice of pizza with a spinach salad, fruit and milk is very different than eating pizza with breadsticks, soda and dessert,” Kaczmarski points out. “This is how we teach students to eat a balanced meal and make smart choices!” Sodas were removed in 2006.
In Polk County nearly 69,000, or 69 percent, receive free or reduced-price meals, Kaczmarski reports. About 15 percent of families live below the poverty level, which is higher than the national average of 13 percent according to 2008 data, reports ONE BAY Healthy Communities. More than 23 percent are uninsured in Polk based on 2008 data.
Parents can help reinforce good eating habits through websites like, a U.S. Department of Agriculture site with dietary guidelines and a Blast Off game for 6 to 11 year olds. The game is accessible from the middle of the homepage when clicking Children (6 to 11) under the title “For Consumers.”
Another website is, published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.“They have cute little recipes that parents can make with their kids,”says Susan Kistler, Polk County Health Department’s nutrition director.
Although it takes longer, Dr. Soni says it’s a good idea to let kids prepare their own snacks with an adult’s supervision. His make sandwiches into the shape of animals or cars.
Dr. Soni avoids telling the kids “no” when they want to try something, even if it isn’t the healthiest. “If you actually say no to something then they want it more,” he explains. As part of the regular menu however, the Soni household sticks to healthier options such as veggie chips instead of potato. “We believe diet is important. We try to limit processed foods.” Vitamins are an aid, but they are not relied upon. “The best vitamins are from a healthy balanced diet,” he adds.
Setting the foundation with other healthy habits
Exercise is part of the well-rounded lifestyle and it should consist of more than just walking. “Exercise is work. It takes effort. And you generally are perspiring when you’re doing it,” Dr. Seoane says. Fortunately, helping kids get exercise doesn’t have to fee like work. Getting outside and playing an active game or sport is great physical fitness as well as a good bonding experience for parents and children, further laying the foundation for healthy living.
Keeping children focused on good nutrition and study habits is important, but it also may not be enough. Preventative care such as immunizations in addition to regular “stay well” visits to a family physician are the best ways to make sure your child has the best physical chance to excel in school. One way parents can help in this area is by teaching their kids how to prevent the spread of germs in order to thwart spreading or catching a virus. To read more about this process, turn to page 7.
Besides trying to prevent your child from getting sick, other physical needs can present itself. Vision can change rapidly between eye visits, making your child unable to read the whiteboard. “Make sure the child’s vision is checked to ensure that they can succeed in the classroom,” advises Dr. Haight. He also suggests for parents to check ear buds on mp3 players and use safety volume controls to protect their children from ear damage.

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