Written by Steve Belcher
A lot has been written about improving health systems and health education to reach older people or those who have established illnesses. But it's also very important to reach younger people. After all, it's estimated that at least 16 million school-age children miss at least one day of school in a year, while at least 13 million miss up to five days due to illness. The school nurse plays a vital role in helping kids learn about how to stay healthy and safe.
The eating habits you learn at an early age often follow you into adulthood. Kids need the same basic things adults need from their diets, including a good balance of minerals, vitamins, fat, protein, and carbohydrates. However, kids can have different calorie needs at different stages of development. Diets for kids should focus on nutrient-dense foods without much saturated fat, salt, or sugar. Every day, kids should eat protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and some dairy products. Foods with lots of sugar and salt should be treat foods, not for every day.
Kids need to be active throughout the day. In fact, kids younger than 5 need about three hours of active movement each day. School-age kids need at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity each day. This doesn't need to be done all at once: You can break it up into chunks throughout the day. School nurses can work with teachers to make sure that kids are attending PE and getting time outdoors, and nurses can also work with parents and kids to teach them ways to include movement and activity at home.
Teaching kids good hygiene starts early. One of the first tasks kids should learn is how to thoroughly wash their hands and when they should wash them. Little kids also need to be taught how to cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze. As kids get older, personal hygiene should start transitioning from tasks done or overseen by parents to tasks that are the responsibility of the child. These tasks include brushing their teeth, flossing, bathing, and washing their hair. Children going through puberty also need to learn how to care for their changing bodies.
Kids who have adults in their lives who model emotional regulation and healthy coping mechanisms are more likely to learn these habits. Adults who remain calm in a crisis are a source of support for kids and a model for their behavior. It's important that kids feel listened to and that they have their feelings validated by adults. It's also important to empower kids. For example, learning how to stay healthy and helping with chores are actually great for kids' emotional well-being.
Nurses, parents, and kids should know the symptoms of common illnesses that almost everyone gets at some point. Pink eye is one disease that's common and very easy to spread; everyone should know the signs of this illness and how handwashing and keeping your hands away from your eyes can help prevent it. Strep throat is usually painful, often accompanied by a fever, and requires treatment by a doctor. Head lice are tiny bugs that travel from head to head. Contrary to some old wives' tales, lice actually prefer clean hair. There are medications and medicated shampoos to use when lice are found, and bedding and clothing also should be washed and treated. Chickenpox shows up as an itchy, red rash. There is a vaccine for chickenpox, so it's a lot less common than it once was. However, there's no real treatment for the illness. Food allergies are also very common among children. Kids with allergies need to be taught what their allergens are, how to avoid them, and, if necessary, how to use their EpiPen.
School safety issues are all over the news, and for many parents and kids, it's a real worry. Parents need to keep communication open with their children and validate their concerns and feelings. Parents also need to teach their children when and how to get help when a friend says something concerning or threatening. For example, the school nurse is often a safe adult for kids to turn to when they need to get help with a scary situation. It's also a good idea to create a safety plan so that kids know what to do should something go wrong at school or anywhere else. Kids who are preoccupied with the subject should see a therapist to learn how to deal with their anxiety.