Childhood Success At School

boy-eating-breakfastThe electronic babysitter holds a place of great esteem in modern society, although there are plenty of families who relegate it to the limbo of indifference. That being said, we’ll mention a caution issued by the University of Montreal that admonishes against more than two hours of TV a day for toddlers because of its cumulative negative effects, notably on school readiness. Motor skills and psycho-social skills fall at the hands of PBS and the cable. Physical activity and reading skills falter, and social difficulties, include being bullied, float to the surface. The ability to follow instructions doesn’t improve, either. All this influences performance in kindergarten, which predicts success in later grades (Pagani, 2013). But TV viewing is only one of the variables in a child’s lifestyle that can be controlled. Here is a factor that can’t be blamed on genes and heredity, but can be placed at the feet of nonadaptive parents or guardians.

Two other life experience variables that matter in eventual, and even immediate, school performance are eating and sleeping. In fact, they influence adult life too because wellness behaviors don’t stop at either end of the longevity spectrum. For starters, the brain can’t function the right way with too little fuel…or with the wrong blend. Your everyday sedan might be able to get away with 89-octane. But don’t even think about using that puny formula in a high-performance car that demands 100-octane. The brain is a high-performance, original-equipment-only body part, interchangeable with nothing.

Even though breakfast has been touted as the most important meal of the day, there’s not a whole lot of data to back that up. But what’s lacking in quantity is more than accommodated in quality. Regardless of a chintzy toaster-pastry high-carb breakfast, kids who eat breakfast at all fare better academically than those who skip it. Yeah, the octane is really low, but sputtering and pinging trump sitting in the driveway. Breakfast eaters generally consume more daily calories, yet are less likely to be overweight. Not every breakfast skipper packs on the pounds, though (Rampersaud, 2005). Add a little fiber and some protein to that meal and sit back and watch the action.

In children whose nutritional status is compromised, the effects of breakfast consumption are more dramatic than in those who are nutritionally secure (Hoyland, 2009). This is part of the reason why school breakfast programs were initiated decades ago. It’s not a matter of bleeding heart liberalism, either, because breakfast reduces the amount of vagrant behavior a teacher has to put up with, and increases the volume of measureable education for which the teacher is responsible. In a practical sense, breakfast also improves school attendance, and that can have fiduciary ramifications in many areas.

There’s not much room to address all the vitamins and minerals the body needs to be its best, but consider iron as an ingredient in the recipe for scholastic luster. It’s been accepted that iron deficits high enough to cause anemia put kids at an academic disadvantage, and that iron therapy improves cognitive performance (Taras, 2005). An additional benefit of dietary iron, one that has psycho-social merit, is the improvement in hyperactive, inattentive behavior (Konofal, 2004) (Cortese, 2012). Enriched breakfast cereals, spinach omelets, nuts and seeds, and potatoes are sources of iron. A study at Tufts University found that kids who ate cooked oatmeal (which supplies almost 20% of the iron we need), in contrast to ready-to-eat cereal, displayed enhanced cognitive functioning, especially where visual processing was required. Spatial memory and short-term memory showed remarkable improvements. The compositional variations in cereal proteins, the fiber content and the glycemic scores indicate that what kids eat before school is important (Mahoney, 2005). What’s more, oatmeal provides a slower and more sustained source of energy. Non-heme iron needs vitamin C for assimilation, so that glass of OJ can make a difference. Supplemental vitamin C counts.

Studies on diet and success at school are trans-oceanic. You can find undernourished, stunted, hungry poor performers in other countries, sharing characteristics that can be modified by eating breakfast (Grantham-McGregor, 2005) (Ni, 2010). The only drawback to some school programs is that a handful of people see themselves excused from their obligations. See this story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/06/AR2009010601195.html?hpid=moreheadlines. Among the obligations is getting the kids to bed at a reasonable hour.

Kids grow when they are horizontal. The major secretion episodes of growth hormones occur soon after the onset of sleep. Disruption in the sleep-wake cycle upsets hypothalamus timing and causes observable neuro-cognitive consequences that affect learning, memory capacity and academic performance (Curcio, 2006). Sleep quality and quantity are closely tied to what happens in school because the prefrontal cortex, the “CEO” of the brain that orchestrates thoughts and actions toward specific goals, is vulnerable to sleep loss.

It’s not uncommon for high-school kids to fall asleep early in the school day. For many teens, school starts too early. Seven hours sleep won’t satisfy the need, and by the third or fourth class of the day, about twenty-five percent of kids are ready to go back to bed. If your teenager snores or grinds his teeth regularly, you might consider a visit to the doctor (Ng, 2009). Sleep deprivation will make kids moody. If they’re old enough to drive, it will increase the risk for an accident, as well. It’s one thing to fall asleep at school; another at the wheel (Carskadon, 2004).

No matter the part of the globe, children sleep more during the off season than during the school year. Still, there are things that affect sleep quantity—parent influence on bedtime, homework and extra-curricular activities, recreation and TV time. The problem is that sleep-wake patterns shift during the second decade of life and most kids get stuck at a certain point (Crowley, 2007) (Wyatt, 2004). Good habits have to start early and remain consistent. That’s where dad and mom enter the scene…maintaining consistency. Of course, a common-sense-but-not-likely-ever-to-happen solution is to start school at a different time. Even exposure to bright light early in the A.M. does little to improve academic performance (Hansen, 2005), but starting school as little as thirty minutes later has been associated with improved motivation, reduction of depressed mood, and measurable increases in academic success (Owens, 2010). Arising early in autumn means the kids have to go to bed early, too (Carskadon, 1998). Kindergarten foreshadows high school (Pagani, 2013). Start ‘em young.

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