Experts say there are a few steps North Carolina families can take to help young children feel prepared and ready to begin the new school year. Muffy Grant, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, said as schools relax COVID-19 protocols like mask-wearing, kids are more likely to come home with other airborne diseases, like step throat and the seasonal flu. She advised parents to make an appointment with their children's pediatrician to ensure vaccinations are up-to-date. She also suggested they make a schedule for weekday mornings, and have ongoing discussions about how school differs from being home. "Parents can talk to their children about what expectations are in the classroom," Grant pointed out. "Things like raising your hand, that there's going to be bathroom breaks that are scheduled throughout the day, that the grown-ups there, are there to help you." She added getting enough sleep is especially critical for learning. Research shows children ages six to 13 who get between nine and 11 hours of sleep each night have fewer behavioral and learning problems. Dr. Donna O'Shea, national chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare, said parents should also monitor kids for digital eyestrain caused by overusing computers and screens. "Make sure the computer screens are at least 30 inches away, or to make sure that you or your child are taking breaks every 20 minutes from the screens," O'Shea advised. "Consider investing in screen protectors or computer monitors that help limit that exposure to blue light." And from a state policy perspective, Grant noted the universal free lunch program provided to schools throughout the pandemic resulted in more kids being fed at school, which underscores the importance of a healthy diet. "That is a tool that is proven to have better academic outcomes for young children," Grant outlined. "Less behavioral issues, and also better attendance." She added early data showed kindergartners and first graders did better than expected in school during the first two pandemic years, a finding experts attribute to the universal free lunch program.
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