Q&A with Swedish experts: Preparing your child for a new school year
[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
Back-to-school season is the ideal time to schedule your child’s annual wellness exam and verify their vaccinations are up to date.
Vaccination requirements vary according to your child's age and the grade they are entering.
Our experts share tips about addressing common physical and emotional health challenges that occur this time of year.
Sharpen those #2 pencils and dig out the backpacks and lunch boxes. It’s back-to-school season.
Parents and caregivers of school-age children are gearing up to prepare for the first day of school. We know this time of year is jam-packed with shopping lists, to-do lists and getting back on at least a semi-regular schedule. And it may not be easy to keep it all straight.
We’re here to help.
We talked to three experts at Swedish to get answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about starting the school year on the right foot:
- Benjamin Starnes, M.D., executive medical director of Pediatrics for Swedish Health Services, explains the importance of regular physical examinations.
- Frank Bell, M.D., earned the Seattle Top Doc 2022 Pediatric Infectious Disease Top Doc designation and has received the Seattle Top Doc award for multiple years.
- Angela Christiansen, MSW, LCSW, LICSW, is a behavioral health expert who works with children and their families to achieve better mental and emotional health.
Here’s what they shared.
Physical exams and other medical preparation
Q. Does back-to-school time present any unique health challenges for returning students?
Summer can be busy, but your schedule will likely be even more hectic once school starts. This is a great time to go through a health checklist and make sure your child has:
- Had their annual physical.
- Is up to date on all their vaccines.
- Received the okay to participate in sports.
Q. How often should a child have a back-to-school exam? Do students need them every school year or just when an exam is required for sports eligibility?
A back-to-school exam is the same as an annual wellness exam. Back-to-school time is a good reminder for parents to ensure their child has been seen by their primary health provider in the past year. It’s a great time to get one on the calendar if they have not.
As your child moves from frequent infant and toddler checkups to the yearly well-child exams, summer is a great time to schedule these visits. Your child will not need to miss school and their physician can help make sure they are physically ready for the challenges the next grade may bring.
These important checkups give pediatricians the opportunity to do a thorough exam that addresses any emotional, social or developmental concerns. It also allows your child’s pediatrician to assess their readiness for extracurricular activities, including sports.
Swedish does annual wellness exams at all of our primary care and pediatric locations.
Q. Do children need regular physical exams even if they’re never sick?
Absolutely! Prevention is essential to good health. Yearly visits help your child’s physician detect emerging problems so they can be addressed sooner rather than later.
Regular exams include counseling on nutrition, growth and development, as well as parenting tips and opportunities for both parent and child to ask questions.
Q. What does a back-to-school physical consist of? What is the physician looking for?
A back-to-school physical or annual exam starts with updating a child’s history and checking their immunization status. Your pediatrician will want to know what has happened since your child was last seen.
As your child gets older, we may screen for depression and look for any stressors in your child’s life. This will be followed by a complete physical, including a check of your child’s blood pressure, height, weight, vision and hearing. A thorough physical will make sure your child is ready for sports and healthy enough to participate in extracurricular activities.
Once a child enters their teenage years, they will be given an opportunity to speak with the provider alone about any issues they may have. Guidance on how to handle those issues will be provided based on age-appropriate recommendations and your child’s individual needs.
Q. Are there any other health-related issues parents should know about as they prepare their child for a new school year?
Over the past several years, we have seen increased mental health concerns among children. Parents should be on the lookout for any concerning changes in behavior or signs of excessive stress or anxiety. Pediatricians and primary care providers can be great resources for these potential challenges.
Q. What vaccinations does my child need to go to school?
The vaccinations needed for school entry depend on your child’s age and the grade they are entering. Specific details are available from the Washington State Department of Health website or your child’s school.
Most children entering kindergarten must have completed their infant and early preschool vaccines. The following vaccines should be up to date before school starts:
- DTaP vaccine to stop tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough.
- Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV).
- MMR for protection from measles, mumps and rubella.
- Varicella vaccine to prevent the risks of chickenpox.
Q. What are the benefits of having my child vaccinated?
The childhood vaccines recommended for use in the US are considered carefully by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). The vaccines required for school entry are safe and provide essential protection for school-aged children. In addition, vaccines help keep our school communities safe places to learn and play.
Q. Are there risks to vaccinating my child?
Vaccines used for routine childhood immunizations have been subject to careful study and have been shown to be very safe. Immunizations may be followed by a period of discomfort or fever but side effects are seldom troublesome. They typically go away within a day or two.
Q. At what ages should my child be vaccinated?
Vaccines help protect us from the early months of life into adulthood and beyond. In addition to boosters for childhood vaccines, it’s vital that preteens and teenagers are protected against human papillomavirus (HPV) and meningococcal infections. Talk to your child’s health care provider to determine the vaccines your child needs to stay protected.
Q. What if vaccinations are against my religious or other beliefs?
It’s important to discuss any concerns you might have about vaccination with your child’s health care provider. Vaccine exemptions are available for the small number of children who need them. However, it’s important for parents to understand that this may place children at risk, particularly in the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease such as measles.
Our children deserve the best protection from infection and to be kept as healthy as possible.
Behavioral and emotional preparation
Q. Do children and parents experience emotional and mental challenges when it’s time to return to school?
Yes, 100%! I often meet with kids who are hyper-stressed about school. Starting a new grade can be a difficult transition. Transitions are always tough, whether they’re positive or negative. Change is hard.
Q. What types of issues are common?
Many emotions are expected at the start of a new school year. I think there’s an initial excitement. There are so many different things going on. So many things to worry about and think about. Am I going to have friends? Am I going to like my teacher? Things like that. So, initially there is this combination of excitement, fear, anxiety and nervousness.
Q. How can parents help their child adapt to the start of the school year?
Parents can help their kids prepare better to go back to school by keeping a basic structure in their lives, even during the summer. It’s easier to get back into a school routine if you have yet to get too far away from it in the first place. Pay attention to what behaviors are being modeled for your children, and adapt your behaviors as needed.
Other helpful strategies for parents and kids include:
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Average at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Get enough sleep. Check out this helpful bedtime calculator.
- Establish rules around electronics, screen time and social media use. It's important for parents to follow these rules as well to model appropriate behavior.
Q. What resources are available to parents?
If you are having trouble handling their child’s behavioral problems and navigating the school’s systems and processes, talk to your child’s physician about getting with a behavioral health provider.
Swedish has a team of experts that can help parents and point them in the right direction to get the help they and their child need to make a smooth transition into the upcoming school year.
Learn more and find a provider
If you have questions about vaccinations or want to schedule your child’s wellness exam, Swedish Pediatrics can help. Additionally, Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.