A Healthy Start to the (Strange) New School Year

chid at kitchen table working on computer

August and September usually come with excitement for most kids as they gear up to go back to school. However, this back-to-school period is much different than what students have previously experienced. Some children may be attending class in person with appropriate safety precautions, while others may be learning online from home. Hybrid approaches have also been a common choice among local school districts. Unfortunately, none of these are perfect or can replace the classroom experiences children had in the past.

Whether or not school occurs in person or at home, there are a few things families can do to ensure their student heads into the school day as focused and motivated as possible. While all children have different needs regarding special services or academic supports, each student requires a healthy diet, quality sleep, and plenty of exercise. Dr. Michael Wolff, co-owner and neuropsychologist at BRAINS, explains that when fundamental and basic health needs like sleep and exercise are missed, children can present with behaviors and symptoms similar to ADHD.


A healthy diet is important for general brain function. Too many sweets or heavy foods can result in crashes during the day or lethargy. It is also important to avoid foods high in saturated fats, sugar, and salt given the negative effect it can have on overall health. Protein and essential fatty acids can help provide energy to sustain students over longer durations. A healthy breakfast and lunch, even when doing school from home, will help to keep students engaged throughout the day.

Ensuring higher amounts of fruits and vegetables are also important for brain health. However, this is also often met with the most push-back from picky eaters. Here are Mayo Clinic’s tips for picky eaters. Trying to supplement vegetables for meat or other common foods may help to sneak in a healthier option. Adding fruit to snacks or other meals is also useful. It is also good to have plenty of produce available to snack on instead of candies or baked goods.


It is easy to get into the habit of staying up later or sleeping in when there is no school over the summer. With many children learning from home at the beginning of the school year, it may be more challenging to return to normal sleep routines used during past school years. However, even if parents are homeschooling or children are doing school remotely, having a consistent sleep routine is important. Limited sleep can lead to challenges with attention and concentration that may impact how alert a child is to instruction. It may also impact their overall mood, with proper sleep hopefully allowing a student to more willingly participate in learning activities. This includes ensuring approximately nine to 11 hours of sleep per night for school-aged children, as recommended by The National Sleep Foundation. General recommendations to help with sleep are avoiding caffeine, leaving TVs and computers out of the bedroom, and making sure bedrooms are dark, quiet, and cool.

For more tips on back-to-school bedtime routines, visit


Even for students who are attending school in person, recess and physical education classes have been affected in some districts. This can limit or completely eliminate opportunities for exercise, which many children need to release energy during the day and help them focus more in class. It is recommended that children get 60 minutes of exercise per day. If learning remotely, this may mean occasional breaks to play outside or engage in other physical activity periodically. If attending school in person, opportunities should be given to allow for similar play at the end of the school day.

Whether attending school in person, remotely or a combination of the two, there are many things that parents can do to ensure that their child is ready for the school day. All individuals, regardless of age, require a healthy diet, quality sleep, and exercise for general health and wellness. This is especially true as we battle a pandemic. However, even in the best of times, ensuring that your child is living a healthy life can lead to better engagement in school and performance at their full potential.

If you believe your child isn’t reaching their potential in school, call us to schedule an appointment at 616-365-8920. BRAINS provides services including educational assessments, outpatient therapy, and more.

About the Author: Dr. Jesse Piehl, PhD. is a licensed psychologist at BRAINS in Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Piehl’s primary area of interest is working in pediatric neuropsychology. During his training at Ball State, he spent three years working in the school system conducting evaluations for special education placement and working within the Response to Intervention framework. Dr. Piehl has presented research at multiple regional and national conferences on various areas of neuropsychological functioning, most notably with regard to executive functioning. To learn more about Dr. Piehl, click here