Emiliano Tatar, MD
The kids have gotten the required vaccinations and physicals. From a health perspective, at least, they’re ready to start school.
Still, as parents take their children to visit the pediatrician to take care of the basic school health requirements, other subjects do come up, says Emiliano Tatar, MD, a pediatrician at Einstein Physicians Roxborough. Many of those issues should remain on parents’ radar all school year, he says.
Obesity. It's one of the key medical concerns that presents itself, Dr. Tatar says. Although addressing obesity doesn’t fall into the category of a school district health requirement, it is something parents need to recognize as a problem and take steps to address.
“The number one thing we spend the most time on is obesity,” says Dr. Tatar. “Parents often are not aware of how unhealthy their children’s weight is.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, that can be a difficult discussion for any pediatrician.
“Sometimes I think it’s awkward because we’re talking to kids who are at an age when they are feeling the most awkward and have all kinds of social shyness,” the doctor says. “You don’t want to make the child feel bad. Now, you’re talking to them about being overweight.”
The health consequences of childhood obesity are serious. Children who are obese are at higher risk than normal weight children for diabetes and heart disease. On the school front, he says, obese children may be subject to bullying, and at increased risk for depression. (Read on for more about bullying.)
Parents aren’t always happy to learn that their kids are obese, either. Many deny it. Sometimes, Dr. Tatar says, parents will try to explain away unhealthy weight by suggesting that “we’re all big in this family, so he’s going to be big.”
Difficult or not, Dr. Tatar says, it’s a conversation that needs to happen. “That does create unpleasant situations sometimes, but there’s really no choice. We have to talk about it. We try to be as gentle as we can, and reiterate that it’s about health, not looks.”
Sleep. Whether or not children get the amount of sleep they require to remain in good health—and therefore, ready to learn—is a big concern. Preteens and teens, for example, don’t always get the amount of sleep they need. Dr. Tatar and his pediatric colleagues generally recommend about 10 hours per night. (The Sleep Foundation reports that just 15 percent of teens in the United States get just 8 and half hours of sleep on the average school night. What’s more, their sleep habits vary from night to night.)
There are very good educational and mental health reasons to encourage good sleep hygiene in kids, says Dr. Tatar. “There’s some interesting research out there that suggests that even providing an extra hour of sleep a night can help with school performance and behavior,” he says. “There’s also a link to lack of sleep and depression in teenagers.”
One reason the kids might be up later than they should be? Electronic devices. Here’s a tip: Parents should establish a rule that during weekdays, the phone goes to the parents at bedtime. “The kids can lock it if there’s a privacy concern,” says Dr. Tatar, “and the parents can charge it in their bedroom, and return it to the kids in the morning.”
Bullying. It’s ugly, and it’s a big problem. Twenty-eight percent of American schoolchildren in grades 6-12 report being bullied, according to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children. (This can include cyberbullying—threatening children via social media, cell phones and other electronic communications.) Pediatricians can help parents detect the warning signs, because kids won’t always share the information—and sometimes they don’t always see bullying for what it is. “We always encourage parents to ask kids if they feel safe at school,” says Dr. Tatar. “If kids are hesitant about going to school, if they’re getting tummy aches, or they complain a lot about going to school, parents should be suspicious that there might be bullying.”
Once parents know bullying is going on, they can work with school officials to address the issue. More tips here.
Dental Concerns. Hard to believe? Research suggests that kids with decay, pain and other dental issues are three times more likely to miss days of school. According to the Healthy Schools Campaign, dental problems are responsible for nearly 2 million lost days of school nationwide in kids 5-17.
Pediatricians recommend biannual dental visits for kids, says Dr. Tatar. And one tip: Steer children toward tap water over bottled. Public water supplies contain fluoride, which prevents tooth decay.
“We really want kids to drink tap water, especially in poor neighborhoods, where there is less access to dental care. This is a very simple way to prevent cavities, and it’s free.”
And if you live in the city of Philadelphia? “People have a really hard time believing this,” says Dr. Tatar, “but Philly water is very high quality and clean—and it contains fluoride, which has about a hundred years of evidence behind it.”