Secrets for Perfect Attendance

Experts share their tips for keeping kids healthy all school year.

Medically reviewed in December 2020

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School's started, and in addition to homework, your child may also be bringing home bumps, bruises and yucky germs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2012, 37 percent of kids ages 5 to 17 missed three or more days at school thanks to injuries and illness. Anywhere from 22 to 189 million days are missed annually thanks to colds alone.

Missing too much school can affect your child’s grades and contribute to them falling behind—up to two years if your kiddo misses three or more days a month, according to one report. Help keep them ahead of the curve with some pediatrician-approved tips from Stephanie Kuhlmann, DO, of Wesley Children's Hospital.

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Stay safe on the playground

Physical activity is critical for kids. Recess helps improve a child’s concentration, boosts their mood and academic performance and helps them get better sleep. But playgrounds can also pose some serious risks. And nothing will wrack up sick days quicker than a broken bone.

To keep your child safe, check out Dr. Kuhlmann’s playground safety tips:

  • Choose tennis shoes over sandals
  • Avoid loose-fitting clothing that can get caught on equipment
  • Make sure your child is playing on an age-appropriate playground
  • Encourage them to play with a buddy so there’s always someone to get help in case of an accident.
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Load up their lunchbox

It’s not news that a healthy lunch is key to keep your child going throughout the day. But not all lunchbox staples are created equal. Many of kids’ favorite snacks—juice boxes, fruit snacks, even cereal bars—are packed with sugar that can leave kids feeling sluggish and cranky.

If you’re packing your child’s lunch, Dr. Kuhlmann recommends protein-rich snacks to keep them sustained for the school day, such as cheese sticks, hummus with pretzels or carrot sticks, tuna (if they’ll eat it) or apples slices with peanut butter.

If your child eats in the cafeteria, Kuhlmann says to encourage your kids to select colorful fruits and veggies, some protein and milk or water to drink.

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Keep vaccines and physicals current

The best defense is a good offense—or is it the other way around? Either way, stopping sicknesses before they start is a great way to keep your kids healthy throughout the school year.

That means making sure your child is up-to-date on important immunizations. “Definitely make sure they get a flu shot every year,” says Dr. Kuhlmann. The flu alone is responsible for 38 million missed school days a year. And remember, “just because they had one last year doesn’t necessarily protect them this year.”

Physicals are also important, and Dr. Kuhlmann recommends one annually after age three, unless your child has a more chronic illness, in which case they might be needed more frequently.

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Power down the iPad before bed

A good night’s rest is one of the most important things you can do to keep your kid well. Well-rested kids retain information better, have fewer behavioral problems and get better grades. Also, Dr. Kuhlmann says, “good quality sleep is associated with a 50 percent decrease in illness.”

Try these bedtime tips to help your little one rest easier:

  • Establish consistent sleep routines
  • No caffeine after lunchtime. Kids under 12 should avoid caffeine altogether, but try to limit it for older kids, too.
  • Incorporate calming activities, such as taking a warm bath and reading a book into the nighttime routine.
  • Encourage your child to shut down the electronics a couple hours before bed
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Reinforce hand washing

"Hand washing is key to preventing infections," says Dr. Kuhlmann. Keeping little hands clean during the day can reduce the risk of spreading colds by up to 21 percent, and reduce diarrheal illnesses by up to 31 percent, according to the CDC.

Kuhlmann says to make sure kids are washing with warm water for 15 to 20 seconds and scrubbing vigorously. They should wash before eating, after using the restroom, after recess and anytime they’ve been playing in a common area with other kids and toys.

You can’t always be there to monitor your child, so remember to practice good hand hygiene at home to reinforce the habit.

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Avoid swapping hats and helmets

Whether it’s a baseball hat or a football helmet, sharing head coverings with other kids can put your child at risk for head lice—that yucky condition most common in kids 3 to 11 years old.

To steer clear of these critters, Dr. Kuhlmann recommends no sharing of hats, helmets, brushes or combs with other kids at school. If your child does contract lice, keep them home until it’s been properly treated, and remember to thoroughly wash all bedding and clothing. Make sure to notify the school of your child’s lice as well.

“The main thing to know is that [head lice] is common. It doesn’t mean your child is dirty . . . and when kids play together it’s pretty easy to pick up.”

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Be wary of the water fountain

These days, many teachers allow kids to carry water bottles with them to stay hydrated, but that doesn’t mean they’ve completely done away with water fountains.

Water fountains are often among the most germ-ridden places in a school, harboring thousands of illness-inducing microbes. What’s worse, it’s an easy way for kids to directly ingest germs into their mouths.

“I would say to avoid them if at all possible,” Dr. Kuhlmann says. “But if it’s your child’s only source of water, [tell them to] let the water run for a few seconds before he or she drinks out of it. And [remind them not to] put their mouth directly on it.”

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Remember ringworm

If your child’s an athlete, chances are they spend a lot of their time in the gym or locker room. It’s a great place to catch up with friends after a game, and also, unfortunately, a great place to catch ringworm—a fungal infection that causes a pink, scaly, ring-shaped rash that itches, and is highly contagious.

Ringworm thrives in moist environments, so to avoid it, Dr. Kuhlmann suggests changing into clean clothes directly after practice or a game, using shower shoes in communal locker room showers, drying off well after bathing and not sharing towels.

Also remember to clean equipment, such as gym mats, gloves, helmets and jerseys, thoroughly after each use.

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More tips

Looking for other ways to keep your child healthy this year? Dr. Kuhlmann has a few more tips for you:

  • Make sure your kids aren’t eating or drinking after their friends at school. Sharing sodas and sandwiches is a sure-fire way to spread cold-causing germs.
  • Remember sunscreen. Even as the weather gets cooler, the sun’s rays are still harmful, so it’s important to keep your kids protected.
  • Pack a water bottle. Having access to water can keep your kids hydrated throughout the day and limit their use of the water fountain.
  • Teach your child to cough/sneeze into a tissue or their elbow to prevent spreading germs.

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