Our children are returning to school. The idea is surreal, and beautiful. What used to be an accepted annual routine is now a much bigger deal. Virtual learning, hybrid learning, and masked learning have become part of our lives. As we prepare our children for “Back to In-Person School,” we may be excited, we may be apprehensive, we are likely both. The question is – How do we best prepare them for the start of the school year? How do we best prepare their brains to learn?
The best first step to prepare for school is to reset routines. Schedules and habits that may have been functional, or behavioral Band-Aids, during the pandemic, may need to be scrapped for healthier routines. Sleep hygiene and screen time limits are particularly critical routines that affect learning, and thus demand a parental review, and likely a behavioral reset.
Sleep deprivation has profound consequences on our health. Acute sleep deprivation is bad, chronic sleep deprivation is much worse. In toddlers, poor sleep is associated with language delay. In school age children, sleep deprivation leads to cognitive impairment. Tasks requiring sustained attention can be impaired by even a few hours of sleep loss. In adults, chronic sleep deprivation was recently associated with dementia. Regardless of our age, the brain needs sleep.
Excess screen time appears to stress the brain in a manner similar to sleep deprivation. Animated videos and fast-paced video games that demand intense sustained concentration appear to have the greatest harmful effect. Excess screen time has been associated with both language delay and ADHD. A 2019 study showed that children with more than 2 hours screen time per day had a 7-fold increased risk of ADHD. Again, tired brains don’t learn well. It should be noted that face-timing grandparents and e-books are not of concern.
Resetting routines is easy to say, but hard to do. I tell parents in my practice, “Being a pediatrician is much easier than being a parent.” If your child had a healthy routine two years ago, resetting it will be easier. If your child has never learned to fall asleep on their own, or if they’ve been addicted to screen time for years, then the changes will be more difficult, but much more critical. As parents, we are supposed to pick our battles. Taking a stand on behaviors that affect the health of our children’s brain, and therefore their cognitive and emotional health, couldn’t be more important. Below are 5 steps to behavior change that will be successful, if we commit to their daily execution:
Overuse injuries to the brain can have profound intellectual and emotional consequences. When we reset or create behaviors that keep our child’s brain healthy with adequate sleep and thoughtful screen limits, the investment will pay off with a healthy child who returns from school with an educated smile.
Dr. David Reuter is a pediatrician in the Allegro Pediatrics Bothell location.