5 Ways to Help Your Kids Thrive this Year by Dr. Rebecca Jackson, author, Back on Track: A Practical Guide to Help Kids of All Ages

We all experience good days and bad days. Understanding a few key factors contributing to each scenario can help you be more intentional about supporting your kids to ensure this year will have more good days than bad!

Think about yourself and how your mood, energy, and even ability to focus can vary from day to day. Some days, you wake up energized and ready to tackle the big projects at work or around the house. On other days, you struggle to stay focused and may find yourself glazed over when reading or procrastinating on starting a task.  These feelings are normal and happen to everyone – even our kids.

What we do daily contributes to our cognitive abilities. These are the abilities that allow us to pay attention, remember and retrieve information, make good decisions, and control our impulses and behaviors. While critical, our cognitive skills are fragile and can quickly impact us positively and negatively.

Understanding what you can do each day to support, not drain, your child’s cognitive abilities can significantly impact mood, behaviors, and the success of learning throughout the day.

Use these five strategies to help set your child up for success each day:

  • Balance screentime with movement.

While technology can be convenient and entertaining, there is a cost to spending time on devices outside of school. Spending hours gaming or scrolling through social media and videos will fatigue the brain.

The brain does not have unlimited resources, and when the brain runs low on energy to support the myriad of necessary brain functions, your child will experience a more negative mood.  They will also run low on the energy needed to support their cognitive functions.  The result is that kids will have a more challenging time paying attention and controlling their actions and behaviors.

Work to find a balance each day in time spent on devices and being physically active.  Exercise has almost the opposite effect on the brain as technology, activating the brain in ways that can increase attention and memory and boost mood.

To apply this knowledge, try encouraging physical activity before and after time spent on technology. Next, save the screen time for after homework and studying are finished.  This will help to preserve those precious cognitive resources for schoolwork rather than draining attention and self-regulation through tech time.

  • Be intentional about what and when your kids eat.

The foods we eat provide fuel to the brain and body to function. Your kids can’t expect consistent attention, mood, and behaviors if their energy is not constant and high quality. Just like a car can’t run when running out of gas, the brain and body are the same. If you’ve ever experienced feeling hangry, you can envision this experience – it’s when you are so hungry you are crabby and have a hard time thinking or even making a decision. Hangry occurs when the brain has run low on the needed fuel. In kids, this can display as them shutting down, getting irritable, or being uncooperative. This could result in an inability to pay attention and control their behaviors in the classroom.

Since kids are growing, they metabolize their food quickly, making consistent meals and snacks essential throughout the day. In addition to eating frequently, fuel quality must be considered since not all fuels are created equal. While most kids love sugary food and treats, consuming sugar can make paying attention and managing emotions harder. Sugar creates a spike in energy, then a crash. It can be hard to focus at both the peak and the crash.

Many kids also react to food dyes, most commonly red dye. A reaction to artificial food dye can present as hyperactivity and reduced attention and control. Instead of snacking on foods with sugar and food dyes, focus on foods that contain carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein. These ingredients help to support energy, attention, and mood more consistently and for a longer time.

For a successful school day, ensure your kids have a protein, carbs, and minimal added sugars breakfast. Apply this same approach to snacks as well. This doesn’t mean kids can’t have the sugary treats; save them for after school and homework is complete, but a few hours before bedtime so the sugar doesn’t disrupt their ability to wind down and sleep well.

Set a goal of including protein for every meal and snack for your child.  Ideas can include protein smoothies, toast with peanut butter, a banana with almond butter, chips and hummus, or granola bars.

  • Understand that a new experience can be exhausting

Having the right expectations and support is critical to success in any scenario.  One area that parents often overlook is knowing how fatiguing a new experience can be for kids and helping them prepare for the occasion.

The brain is incredible. When experiencing something new for the first time, the brain doesn’t know what information related to the experience is essential – so the brain will take in as much information as possible. Then, when you experience something for a second, third, or fourth time, the brain will begin to filter out the information deemed unnecessary, only capturing what is essential and relevant to the scenario. This allows the brain to conserve resources and memory.

Picture the first time a child walks into a school cafeteria. It is big, noisy, chaotic, and filled with the sights and smells of food, kids, and teachers. A child may walk in, then pause as they look around at everything. Then, they’ll look to see where they need to stand in line and the food choices for the day. After choosing their food, they must scan the room for an open seat, hopefully sitting with friends. This experience can be stressful and overwhelming. By the second week of school, most kids will walk into that same cafeteria, go straight to the line, and then sit at their usual spot at the table.  They’ll hardly notice the chaos and smells as their brain has adjusted to this experience.

The first week of a new school year, the first practice for a new sport or team, or the first time trying anything new can be exhausting. And remember, a tired brain is a negative brain. To help minimize the impact of a fatiguing, unique experience, the more you can help your child prepare and know what to expect, the better equipped their brain will be – so the brain knows what information is important to process and focus on.

For the cafeteria example, going to the lunchroom before school has started can help your child prepare. Show them where they will line up for food, find out the choices offered, and what they need to decide. Find out from the teacher if there will be assigned seating in the lunchroom or coordinate with another friend in the class for the kids to plan to sit together.

If your child is going to try soccer for the first time, spend time watching another team practice and play a game. Talk with the coach for your new team and ask them to describe what the kids will do on the first day of practice, and try the drills at home ahead of time.

Spending time helping your kids prepare and know what to expect from a new experience will decrease the stress and fatigue from doing something new. It will increase the likelihood of your kids having a positive experience and wanting to go back to do it again!  

  • Know your child’s attentional abilities.

For busy families during the school year, homework can be one of the biggest challenges of the day (closely followed by getting the kids out the door on time). Homework is typically assigned to the entire class or must be done at home if it goes unfinished. This means the amount is not specific to your child’s developmental abilities. The child who struggles with attention in class will likely have much more work to complete at home – now needing to pay attention even longer to get it done.

When it comes to homework and attention, don’t set your expectations around your child’s homework amount, grade, or age. You need to meet your child where they are currently. If they can pay attention independently for 10 minutes, you must accept that and provide additional support beyond the 10 minutes. Or, break the homework up throughout the evening into 10-minute segments. Telling your child to “pay attention” or “try harder” will not change their developmental ability to pay attention. It will likely make your child feel bad and you more frustrated.  Instead, approach the homework with realistic expectations and plan to provide additional support to help keep your child on track and review the assignments.

If your child has a shorter attention span than typically needed to get their work done, know that attention is directly related to development. Any immaturity in aspects of development can reduce a child’s attentional abilities. But can positively impact both development and attention abilities.

  • Focus on sleep hygiene.

Kids today are busy. They wake up early to make it to school on time. A full day at school, then often sports, activities, and homework in the evenings. In addition to the various weekly activities, kids have many distractions at their fingertips in the form of phones, tablets, and other technology. It can be hard to fit it all in, and it’s easy to impact their sleep schedules when life gets busy.

Sleep is necessary to support a growing body and contribute to your child’s ability to pay attention and form memories. Sleep is restorative, purposeful, and necessary for overall health and wellness. Reduced sleep can directly impact the cognitive skills needed to make it through a school day. Consistently getting enough sleep is good, but having a good sleep routine is even better. This is considered sleep hygiene and defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the “habits and practices that are conducive to sleep well regularly.”

Best practices for sleep hygiene:

  • Going to bed and waking up at a consistent time each day
  • Sleeping in a dark room
  • Avoiding technology or screens one hour before bedtime (the light from technology signals the brain to be awake)
  • Avoid caffeine and sugar for two hours before bedtime
  • Getting enough sleep for your child’s age:
    • Ages 6-12: Recommended sleep 9-12 hours per night
    • Ages 13-18: Recommended sleep 8-10 hours per night

As a parent, there is so much we can’t control or impact, but implementing these strategies can help make the most of your child’s cognitive abilities to help increase the odds that they will have a great day!  A good night’s sleep, a healthy breakfast, balancing screentime with movement, preparing your kids for anything new that day, and creating realistic expectations for their attention abilities are all small steps that can be highly impactful!

Dr. Jackson is Chief Programs Officer for Brain Balance, where she designs and implements personalized non-medical programs focused on strengthening the brain to optimize performance for various ages and abilities. Her new book, Back on Track, provides a deep understanding as to why the stress and change of the pandemic disrupted development, exacerbating  challenges facing kids, parents, and teachers, and what can be done to help kids get back on track.

Dr. Jackson graduated from Life University as a Doctor of Chiropractic in 2001.  She has appeared on ABC’s The Doctors Show and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, and has contributed to Forbes, Business Insider, TODAY, Huffington Post, and many more.