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Back to School Safely and Healthily

In January 2021, some 12-million learners are waiting to go back to 25,000 schools all over South Africa. However, in the uncertain environment of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are understandably very concerned about the safety of their children while also wanting them to continue with their education.

The best protection you can give your children when they go back to school, is to teach them to take precautions to protect themselves and their peers. Here are 5 healthy habits to develop in your children (and which you will also benefit from) as they return to the classroom:

1. COVID-19 precautions when going back to school

  • Wash your hands
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Wear your mask
  • Keep your space

This nifty little rhyme is a fun way to remember the golden rule with COVID-19 protection. Unfortunately, social distancing is challenging with desks in a classroom, and much depends on whether the teacher and/or school authorities monitor and police compliance in terms of face masks and hand washing or sanitising. Research has shown that these three elements are the most effective way to deal with the spread of the virus, but preventative measures become less effective when the other person is not wearing a mask, even if you are.

Teach your children to be compliant and vigilant at all times, speak to the school to ensure that precautions are being followed, and monitor your children’s health. Remember that the most common COVID-19 symptoms include fever and a dry cough, flu-like malaise, and loss of taste and smell.

If you suspect your child may have become infected, make an appointment to see your doctor for a test and to determine what medication can be taken to help.

2. Healthy eating habits and good nutrition for stronger bodies and immune systems

South Africa has some of the highest obesity rates in the world, brought about by easy access to fast foods and fizzy drinks. Statistics show that as many as 13% of South African children are overweight, which is twice the global average. South Africans consume R41-billion’s worth of fast food each year, and 82% of teenagers have a take-away at least once a week.

As monotonous as it sounds, teaching your young ones to eat healthily (and reminding yourself to do so too) is the same as rote-learning your times tables: it’s one of those things that just has to be done.

Of course, there are two ways to tackle the fruit-and-veggie dilemma that every parent inevitably faces: surprise attack, or work-for-reward. The first (surprise attack) means subtly or not-so-subtly sneaking the green stuff into dishes. Stews, curries and bakes can all use an abundance of vegetables and even some fruits. Wholewheat sandwiches with lettuce, tomato and cucumber in addition to the meat can be tasty and healthy. Blitzing vegetables into sauces is another trick. How about low-fat ice cream and strawberries instead of chocolate sauce? Dark chocolate instead of the milky kind? Peaches and cream substitute designed to look like a fried egg? Such ideas make food fun.

The second (work-for-reward) could lead to bad habits down the line but could also teach great life skills like delayed gratification and that hard work leads to success. This approach means, “Yes, you can have a small sweet after dinner, provided that you drink your water, eat all your vegetables and brush your teeth before you go to bed.” It requires you as the parent to set rules and stick to them.

Have a chat with your doctor about referring you to a nutritionist who can advise on healthy but realistic food choices.

3. Cultivating a healthy and positive attitude

Especially when children come of age and become self-aware as they begin puberty, so they also start their voyage of self-discovery, which takes a lifetime. This is usually when the wheels come off as teens run the gamut of emotions, learning to get the balance right and manage stress, and as such it is important to connect with your children. School can be a stressful time, with new threats from cyber bullying to children being singled out and picked on for food allergies. Locally, 9% of all teen deaths are due to suicide, and in the 15-24 age group, suicide is the second leading cause of death and unfortunately the fastest growing.

All human beings need a good dose of kindness, honesty and caring, and it is your job as a parent to provide this to your young ones and to teach them this important skill to show to others. You have to let your child know that whatever they have or haven’t done, they are always worthy of your love and their own.

Here is one way to improve coping skills and performance, by doing this mirror exercise with your children, which will improve both their self-esteem and yours: stand in front of the mirror with your child and say, “I want you to say to myself, ‘You are an amazingly created being, who has an incredible gift to share with the world.’” Get them to say this in the mirror at least 10 times, and do the exercise a few times a week, on an ongoing basis (this is not a once-off exercise). It doesn’t matter if they don’t believe it (and neither do you) – research has constantly shown that we become what we think, so we must turn our thoughts to good.

4. Getting into healthy routines

Jack Canfield, co-author of the highly successful Chicken Soup for the Soul series, has noted that we have control over only three things in our lives: the thoughts we think, the images we visualise, and the actions we take. Canfield is no stranger to failure, challenge and difficulty. The original book was rejected over 140 times before a small company agreed to publish it.

Related to point 3 above, the point is this: the actions we routinely take build up the character and the body of work we need to achieve success. From consistent bedtimes to the balance of work, play and extra-murals, routines are as good for children as they are for us. They create the necessary discipline that is a core ingredient in living a fulfilled life. But you have to lead by example.

5. Being active outdoors and taking in the fresh air

From classrooms and offices to devices and TV, we have become a very sedentary bunch in the modern world. That’s why even if your children aren’t big fans, the compulsory PE classes at school are actually a blessing.

Even on weekends, before you plop into the car and go off to the shops for some retail therapy, spend an hour outside with the children and get active. And when you do hit the shops, park the car far away from the entrance, take the stairs and not the lift, and offer to push the trolley!

The healthy habit of being active and outdoors not only gives our bodies much-needed Vitamin D from sunshine but helps us feel good because of the link between physical and mental health. Of course, we all need time for TV and devices, but make playing outside a priority too. Over time, you’ll start to feel the difference.

For more tips and suggestions as you brave the new year, have a chat with your doctor about healthy mind and body.

For more information please contact:

Prof VA Jaggan, Educational Psychologist
MA (Med), PhD
Daxina Private Hospital
Tel: +27 11 855 7132
Email: jaggan1@worldonline.co.za or info@lenmed.co.za

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.