You may not think of being a student as a job, but it is. Sure, the rewards are grades, not raises. And you get promoted to the next grade, not the corner office. But it’s still a form of work, which means there are “occupational hazards.”
Here are some on-the-job safety issues kids and their parents need to watch out for during the school year.
Quite possibly the biggest occupational hazard of being a student is sleep deprivation. After a summer of erratic bedtimes, many school-aged children struggle to get back on track with their sleep routine. Sleep deprivation can lead to an array of issues, from an inability to focus in the classroom to behavior issues at home.
Dr. Mary Stailey-Sims, a pediatrician practicing at Advocare Woolwich Pediatrics in Woolwich, NJ and Jefferson Health in Stratford, NJ, recommends that parents ensure their child is getting at least eight hours of sleep.
“Most parents become lackadaisical about their children’s sleep patterns over the summer, so you want to be sure they’re able to get back into their regular sleep routines as soon as possible,” she says.
Catching a cold or flu at school
For many school-age children, back to school often means back to the doctor’s office. Once your child returns to a classroom with dozens of other kids — and starts sharing desks and school supplies — it should come as no surprise if they end up kicking off the school year with a cold or flu.
“We generally see an increase in illnesses after school starts,” says Dr. Olga Vinshtok, regional medical director for Patient First, with locations throughout South Jersey and Pennsylvania. “Kids are coming into close contact with one another and increasing the chances for illnesses to spread.”
Vinshtok’s advice is simple: make sure kids wash their hands frequently. It’s also never a bad idea to toss a travel-sized hand sanitizer into your kid’s lunchbox with that PB&J.
Physical aches and pains may crop up when your child heads back to school and often heavy backpacks are the culprit. “Every student has to carry a backpack to transport his books and personal belongings, but I’ve seen way too many kids — often as young as first or second grade — carrying an enormous backpack that’s completely inappropriate for them,” says Debra Westcott, a pediatric nurse with AtlantiCare Health Services Pediatric Care in Atlantic City, NJ.
Westcott says to be sure your child’s backpack has padded straps and is the appropriate size and fit. “Those heavy backpacks can definitely cause issues down the road. Many kids end up with shoulder, neck and back issues.”
Parents should sort through their child’s backpack on a regular basis to lighten it and ensure it’s packed correctly. “Those books and papers accumulate very quickly, so you want to encourage your child to only carry the essentials and toss whatever is no longer needed,” Stailey-Sims says. Tell them to pack textbooks and the heaviest items closest to their backs to minimize strain.
Extracurricular sports injuries
Another place where your child can get injured isn’t in the classroom, but out on the field. Westcott says she often sees children with sports-related problems once the school year is in full swing, particularly ankle and knee injuries.
“Some students play one sport all year, and that inevitably leads to overuse injuries,” Stailey-Sims says. “For young athletes, it’s really best to have variety; there will be less strain on the same joints, and it gives kids the opportunity to help develop new muscles to help protect against injuries.”
Too much screen time
How much screen time your child should have each day is a hot-button issue among parents. Westcott recommends school-aged children not spend more than two hours a day in front of a screen, including computers, television, phones and handheld or video games.
“The overuse of devices is officially being diagnosed as an addiction and there are even studies that suggest the increase in children with ADD and ADHD is directly related to the increased time that kids spend staring at video games, televisions and computers,” she warns.
That time spent staring at a computer or bent over an iPad or phone can take its toll physically as well. “A lot of kids end up with headaches caused by eye strain, which can happen if you don’t take breaks from the screen,” Stailey-Sims says. “Kids also tend to hunch over their phones, so they’re ending up with neck and upper-back pain.” She recommends that parents encourage their children to take their eyes off the screen every 15 minutes, change positions and stretch or roll their shoulders.
Nutrition at home
It’s not just kids who struggle to return to hectic school-day routines. It’s difficult for many busy parents to find the time to prepare nutritious meals during the school year. Your child can suffer if you rely on too many packaged foods or skip meals all together. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Do not skip it,” Vinshtok says. “Healthy choices will give your child the energy she’ll need for the rest of the day.”
Parents should also try to avoid giving into the temptation to eat on the run. “Nutritious, sit-down meals are often sacrificed during the school year because kids have demanding activity schedules, but it’s important that they have the opportunity to eat a balanced meal, especially if they’re going to play sports,” Westcott says.
Last, one of the most prevalent, but perhaps less obvious hazards of being a school-age student, is anxiety. Today’s kids face pressure to perform in school and juggle multiple extracurricular activities and sports. As a result, many children struggle with increased stress and anxiety-related issues. Stailey-Sims notes that it’s absolutely crucial for parents not to fall victim to the urge to sign their kids up for multiple dance classes, sports and music lessons once the school year starts.
“One of the best things you can do for your child this school year is to limit them to one activity per season and no matter what, always make sure they have ample time allotted each day for homework, meals and play,” Westcott says.
Jennifer Lesser is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.