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August 20, 2016

Kacey Templin

The Back to School Guide to a Happy and Healthy Mind

Topics: STEM Education / Play, STEM

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It’s that time of year again. Supermarkets are stocking up shelves with backpacks, binders, and pencils. Teachers are starting their in-service days. And children are trying to squeeze the last bit of enjoyment out of their summers before they head back to school for the fall semester. The end of the summer months means the beginning of routine again, and some (or maybe most) kids dread that return. Going back to school can be tough for kids, but science says that there are ways to alleviate the stress on a student’s mind. We’ve compiled a list of easy ways to help give your child’s brain a leg up on learning!

Don’t Skip Breakfast

You’ve heard it before. Eating breakfast is the key to starting the day off right. People have been studying the positive effects of eating breakfast for decades, and the evidence is clear – eating in the morning helps children with their academics. Terrill Bravender, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University, explains that our brains need glucose in the morning to jump start the learning process. “Without glucose,” Bravender explains,” people have difficulty understanding new information, [they have a] problem with visual and spatial understanding, and they don't remember things as well."

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A recent study of 4,000 elementary students put this statement to the test. Researchers tested the children’s short-term memory by asking them to repeat a series of numbers out loud after the digits had been read to them. In another experiment, researchers tested verbal fluency by asking kids to name as many animals as they could think of within 60 seconds. In both cases, the children who ate breakfast performed better than the children who skipped breakfast. 

Another study conducted by the University of Iowa demonstrated that low-income kids do better in math, science, and reading when free breakfast is provided for them at school. Researchers compared the academic performances of schools that were just above the threshold and not required to offer free breakfasts versus schools that were just below the threshold and offered free breakfast. What they found was that performance was significantly higher in schools that provided breakfast. Math scores were 25 percent higher in schools just below the threshold, with reading and sciences not far behind.

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Eating breakfast is the key to getting your mind ready for a day of learning. However, not all breakfast foods are created equal. Sugary items, such as sweetened cereals or donuts, may cause blood-sugar levels to peak and crash early in the day, which is detrimental to the learning process. Foods like whole grain oatmeal, eggs, and peanut butter are a much better option. Keep your child’s breakfast packed with foods high in protein and good carbohydrates. A good breakfast is an essential part of every student’s day.

Get Enough Sleep

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, but kids don’t get nearly enough sleep during the school year. High school students average about 6.8 hours of sleep a night, with less than 10 percent achieving 9 or more hours of sleep nightly. Not getting enough sleep can limit children’s ability to learn and concentrate, and can undo hours of studying.

A recent study performed by Duke University and the National University of Singapore discovered that getting 9 hours of sleep for 2 nights after a week of partial sleep deprivation did not reverse any of the cognitive impairments. In the experiment, 56 students between the ages of 15 and 19 were observed. For two weeks, half slept for 5 hours each night and the other half slept for 9 hours. Cognitive assessments were given three times a day to measure cognitive function. The results showed that those who got the full amount of sleep each night were able to maintain function or make cognitive gains, while the group with partial sleep deprivation showed reduced performance gains coupled with deterioration of working memory, alertness, and a positive mood. Staying up late to cram for an exam could do more harm than good.

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Another study found a direct correlation to getting a good night’s sleep and determining academic success. Researchers from McGill University studied 75 healthy children between the ages of 7 and 11 years of age. Nighttime sleep was monitored over the course of five nights and the results were compared with report card scores. The findings showed that children with a higher sleep efficiency had better grades in math and English. Sleep efficiency also played a bigger part in good grades than age, gender, and socio-economic status.

So how do you make sure that your child gets the recommended amount of sleep? The most important step is to set rules about bedtime and technology use. A 2014 review found a relationship between shortened sleep and sleep delay with the amount of time spent in front of a screen before bed.  Creating a routine for bedtime will provide structure for younger children, and will help them go to bed earlier. Make sure to set aside time for homework in the evening, so children are not up late studying. Getting an adequate amount of sleep is crucial for performing well the next day!

Get out and Exercise

Exercising is great for a child’s body, but it also works wonders on the brain. Regular exercise has been shown to improve memory and thinking skills, quality of sleep, and can reduce stress levels. Unfortunately, American children are not exercising enough, to the tune of 74% of children between the ages of 5 and 10 not getting their daily recommended physical activity. With a multitude of studies stressing the importance of exercise and brain development, physical activity should become a much bigger part in the lives of American children.

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A study conducted by scientists at the University of Illinois found that children between the ages of 9 and 10 who were more fit tended to have bigger hippocampus. The hippocampus region of the brain is instrumental in forming and storing memory, as well as assisting with the learning process. Researchers analyzed data collected from MRI scans and found that fit children had hippocampi that were 12 percent bigger than their less active peers. The fit children also demonstrated higher performances in relational memory tasks, and in general performed better in memory assessments.

One way to determine a healthier mind is measuring the health of a child’s heart and lungs. Researchers from the University of North Texas found that cardiorespiratory fitness played a vital part in measuring students’ academic success in reading and math. This research coincides with a study performed by scientists at the Autonomous University of Madrid on the health of Spanish children. Records were analyzed for 2,038 adolescents between the ages of 6 and 18 years to measure the level of physical fitness against academic performance. The findings showed that cardiorespiratory fitness profoundly affected the academic achievement, further solidifying the link between exercise and a healthy brain.

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So how can you support your child’s physical fitness? One way is to become more active yourself.  A 2014 study measured the activity levels of 554 four-year olds and their mothers to assess the fitness level of children. All participants were given heart monitors and recorded their physical activity over the course of a week. The results showed a positive correlation between the activity levels of the mother and activity levels of the child. Parents can be strong positive influencers on the behaviors of their children, and should make a point to instill healthy habits at a young age. 

For kids, it may never seem like they’re ready to start a new year of school. Getting back into a set routine may be a chore for kids, but it doesn’t have to be hard on their brain. Eating right, getting enough sleep, and doing a little exercising can all contribute to a healthy mind that’s ready for whatever the school day throws its way!

Check out ThinkFun’s Brain Fitness games designed to keep your mind sharp here!

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