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The Optimist View: The back-to-school edition

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Tomorrow is Labor Day, which means it’s time to say goodbye to summer camp-outs and long beach days and head back to school and work for the fall. The days are getting shorter and the weather a little chillier, but that doesn’t mean that fall can’t be fun and exciting in its own ways. Returning to school is a big routine change for kids, especially if they haven’t been in-person in a classroom for over a year, but we’ve got a few tips to make the transition easier.

A big concern for parents heading into the year is keeping kids healthy. Following school mask mandates and keeping your child at home if they are feeling sick is critical, but there are other ways you can give your child’s immune system a head start this fall.

Encourage personal hygiene

Aside from mask wearing, hand washing is the most crucial habit to protect from illness. Fortunately, kids are highly adaptable and with a little practice, it’s easy to institute strong personal hygiene habits. Teach kids how to properly wash their hands and encourage them to do so before eating and after using the restroom or visiting a busy public area. Kids learn by example, so show them that you yourself are following the same personal hygiene habits by washing your hands together.

Follow immunization schedules

Covid-19 is getting the bulk of our public health attention, but other diseases, such as measles, are also on the rise, despite having effective vaccines available since the 1960s. Consult your pediatrician and make sure your child is up to date on all their vaccines before the new school year.

Eat the rainbow 

The old “eat the rainbow” strategy for adequate nutrition can be tough if you have a picky eater at home, but committing to healthy nutritious foods is critical for building a strong immune system. Zinc and B, C, and A vitamins all help bolster the immune system, so incorporate a wide variety of leafy greens, fresh fruits, lean protein, and healthy grains into your family’s diet. Remember that even the pickiest kid likely won’t notice if you sneak vegetables into smoothies. To learn more about eating for immune health, check out this article.

Focus on gut health 

A growing body of evidence is linking gut health with overall wellness and disease. Focus on whole foods and fibrous ingredients to promote a healthy gut, and ask your pediatrician about a child-safe probiotic. Check out this article to learn more about eating for a healthy gut.

Reduce stress

The pandemic has ramped up stress levels for all of us, and children aren’t exempt. Small daily habits like family meals and emotional check-ins with your kids can help address and alleviate stress. This article also offers a helpful breakdown on reducing pandemic stress for children.

Get outside

From stress reduction to mood improvement to actually strengthening immune systems, there are endless benefits to time spent outdoors. Plus, during a pandemic, this is probably the safest place for them to roam. Seek out new natural spaces in your neighborhood and consider taking up outdoor-focused hobbies as family like cycling, hiking, bird watching, or gardening.

Prioritize sleep

Sleep is our bodies’ time to rest, heal, and process what we experience during the day. Slumber is even more important for growing children, so make sure your kids are sleeping in a dark, cool, quiet room and stop screen use an hour before bed to avoid circadian rhythm disruptions. Establishing regular sleep and wake time is also important for maintaining sleep quality. Check out this resource to determine how many hours of sleep your child should be getting.

The pandemic may have actually been beneficial for our sleep schedules. According to a study from the University of Colorado, students slept an average of 30 minutes longer each night while attending remote courses, and these increased sleep habits translated over to weekends as well. Students aren’t the only ones sleeping more.

Workers who don’t have to get up early to commute are also getting more sleep and even young children, free from their parents’ work schedules, are able to follow a more natural wake and nap schedule.

The pandemic has changed the way we sleep, and Céline Vetter, one of the authors of the Colorado study, thinks that’s a good thing. Work is a predominant dictator of our sleep schedules, and with more remote work flexibility, people have been able to revert back to their natural circadian rhythms, resulting in better sleep and healthier outcomes.

Humans are meant to be awake during the day and asleep at night, but individual circadian rhythms can fluctuate slightly depending on genetics and hormones, as well as external factors like light and noise. Diverging from our natural rhythms increases the risk of fatigue and inattention, decreasing work quality. It also increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

So what does this mean for work? One study found that people’s natural sleep and wake times can vary by up to 10 hours, so while starting work at nine am might be ideal for some employees, it doesn’t work for everyone.

Children may not have the ability to determine their start time at school, but ensuring they get to sleep early enough to get a full night’s rest is a good starting place. If your child’s school has established different learning cohorts during the pandemic, choosing one with a later start time could be highly beneficial. For you as a worker, if you have the flexibility of a hybrid schedule, waking up earlier to get a jump start on work when you’re feeling more productive or letting yourself sleep in to be productive later in the day could actually benefit your health!

What about mental health?

Okay, so we’ve covered physical health in the new school year, but what about mental health? The pandemic has shed a new light on the effect of isolation on children’s mental health and many kids are still struggling. The US has approved $85 million in mental health funding for children to address this issue, but perhaps more importantly, there are productive steps you can take at home as well to make sure your child’s mental wellbeing is supported. Here are seven strategies to make the back-to-school season more joyful for kids.

Create special moments

This year, many kids have lost out on what makes childhood so special. Instead of lamenting these missed moments, try and recreate them or make up new ones that can help children play and connect. “For example, plan something that your child has wanted to do that helps them explore their passion, such as a special trip or a day of fun with one parent one-on-one,” suggests Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., parenting expert. Creating special moments to make up for lost ones can help start the school year on a good note.

Make learning a game

Joy strategist Erica Lasan recommends trying to make learning more fun by creating engaging and interactive games out of it. “When you’re asking your kids how their day went or going over homework, listen for areas/subjects where you notice a little hesitation or frustration, and take note,” Lasan says. “These are opportunities for you to create a more fun, a new way of learning around the subject.” If you are struggling to come up with ideas, get some other parents together for a brainstorming session, and perhaps get the kids involved as well.

Set joy as an intention

Mallika Chopra, author of the Just Be series and My Body Is a Rainbow, says that after a year filled with uncertainty and fear surrounding social situations, it’s important for parents to make joy a priority this school year. “Let’s make sure we are laughing, playing, and connecting with love to our kids, showing them how our interactions with each other nurture our soul.”

Make a COVID time capsule

Do you remember making time capsules growing up? It seems like this fun memory-making activity has been forgotten once memories became more digitized, however this year, the classic time capsule may be making a comeback. “Each kid and teen may have an idea that they would like to include that can help future students understand what it was like to live through the pandemic,” says psychologist Jennie Marie Battistin, M.A., LMFT. “Have them include their favorite ways they connected through COVID, favorite memories, and maybe their favorite viral meme,” or, “have them videotape TikTok dances and challenges they learned!”

Start a new tradition

Another fun recommendation for a new tradition that you can establish with your children is to make a “grow-with-me T-shirt.” All you have to do is get a Size-L adult shirt with the year of their high school graduation on the front side. On the backside, have them put their handprint and 2021. Add a handprint every year for visual back-to-school memorabilia.

Make a fun to-do list

Instead of trying to figure out a fun thing to do when some free time with your kids happens to open up, “keep your joy on-demand,” Lasan says. “Have a working list of activities and experiences ready to go—so you’re prepped to go whenever fun-time strikes! Try to keep a list together with activities that suit everyone so there’s little to no time needed to waste on debating.”

Reflect with hope and gratitude

The past 18 or so months have been difficult and have robbed many children of a part of their youth. This may take some intentional effort to process. “Engage kids in reflective activity by [having them write] two letters to themselves,” Battistin suggests. The first letter will be “a letter to themselves about how proud they are for getting through the last school year and overcoming challenges or problems. In the second letter, have them write about their hopes, dreams, and goals for this year that they can seal and read on the last day of school.”

Back to work 

After a summer of holidays and relaxing time off, fall is when many people turn their focus more intently back to work. Just like kids will have to adjust to being in the classroom, many parents are also facing a return to the office. If you are going back to in-person work, here are some tips on managing the transition. 

Keep collaborative technology in play 

Technology like messaging apps, video meetings, and workflow platforms was crucial during the pandemic, and, in many cases, actually improved productivity. This technology allowed more ideas to be shared and increased efficiency. Chances are while getting used to commuting, sending kids to school, and catching up on missed medical appointments, people are still going to be doing some work outside of the office, so this technology should stay in place to bridge that gap.

Be realistic about productivity

With no social activities and a mere four feet between the office and the bedroom, many workers took on extra workloads during the pandemic. However, as we adjust back to social life and activities, there will be more distractions and inconveniences to disrupt workflow. Be patient, and set clear and achievable productivity expectations, with flexibility for the unexpected.

Support the work-life balance

As the pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles, and work from home strained the work-life balance, many companies took the initiative to promote a healthy work culture with virtual happy hours, mental wellness days, and even company-sponsored online yoga courses. Leaders should keep this balance in mind as we return to the office and continue to prioritize employees’ mental health to avoid burnout and boost creativity.

Fall resolutions 

One way to keep the whole family engaged and enthusiastic about this season of change is by adopting resolutions. Research shows that only 19 percent of people stick to their New Years’ resolutions, but perhaps that’s because we’re resetting our habits at the wrong time of year. Anytime is a good time to start adopting healthier habits, but if you’re looking for a season to commit to new goals, fall might actually be better than January.

Fall is a natural time of new beginnings, plus we’re well-rested from the summer, and more equipped to tackle resolutions than when we’re burnt out from the holiday season. Plus, the first week of September fits perfectly into the ‘nine-week rule.’ Contemporary studies suggest that it takes our brain 66 days, or roughly nine weeks, to form a long-lasting habit. If you start this week, you will have about nine weeks until Halloween, giving you the perfect time frame to solidify those resolutions. It’s another 12 weeks to Thanksgiving, so you can fully commit to your new healthy habits before the holiday season even starts!

Importance of leisure

Having the kids back in school means more room for professional focus for parents, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our playful summertime selves. Leisure is critical for avoiding burnout, fueling our creativity, and boosting our mental and physical health, but it turns out, leisure is only as beneficial as you believe it to be.

A study from Rutgers University finds that you are more likely to reap the benefits of leisure time if you believe that it is a valuable use of your time.

In the study, the researchers asked over 300 people to reflect on what they did on Halloween, whether they enjoyed it, and what their attitudes were towards leisure in general. They found that those who believe leisure time is wasteful enjoyed the holiday less than their peers who valued recreation as a part of a healthy, balanced life.

In the second part of the study, some participants read an article about the wastefulness of free time and then were shown funny videos. Those who read the article enjoyed the funny videos less than their counterparts who did not read it.

Are you someone who has a hard time enjoying leisure without feeling guilty or lazy? Don’t worry, the researchers had some tips for changing your beliefs and reaping the benefits of rest. The study recommends taking up purposeful leisure activities like meditation, reading, yoga, or knitting. Lead author Gabriela Tonietto says, “For those who think of leisure as wasteful, focusing on the productive ways that individual leisure activities can serve their long-term goals can help.”

Looking for a fun fall leisure activity? Check out this map on when fall foliage will be most vibrant in your area.

If you want more resources for the back-to-school season, check out our ‘Education’ and ‘Worklife’ categories for more great stories like this one on how movement can make students better learners and this resource for navigating a new school year as an LGBTQ parent.

Back-to-school is an exciting season, but it comes with its own set of challenges to navigate, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. Navigating classroom Covid-19 outbreaks, making sure everyone is wearing their mask during carpool, and arranging childcare around a hybrid work schedule are just some of the tricky situations we will face, on top of all the traditional struggles of ensuring our child is fitting in, making friends, and mastering algebra.

We can’t control every aspect of our children’s back-to-school experience or even our own back-to-office experience, but we can set ourselves up for success with these tips and tricks and foster a mindset where we are ready to face every challenge this new season throws at us.

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