Let’s collectively unleash our children’s inner geniuses and supercharge their brilliant minds for the upcoming school year!! As a restorative physician, I’m here to share some cutting-edge brain-powering tips and tricks that will help your little ones conquer the academic challenges that lie ahead. So, let’s dive right in and get those gears turning!
The state of academic performance of children in the US is more than worrying. In recent years, the US has consistently fallen behind other countries in subjects such as math, science, and reading. This decline has raised concerns about the nation’s competitiveness and its ability to produce a highly skilled workforce to tackle the challenges of a globalized world. “Overall, American students placed 24th in reading, 38th in mathematics, and 25th in science. The total average of the students’ performance was 470. The OECD average was 490, putting the U.S. students’ academic achievement way below many of the high academic achievement of their OECD peers (Heim, 2016).” Enough said?
Factors such as disengaging classroom environments, lack of relevant curriculum, and inadequate support systems have contributed to reduced academic success in our youth. However, in my opinion, one huge elephant in the room is the impact of chronic disease on children’s brain health and the effects of subpar health on learning and academic success.
Over the past decade, the state of children’s health has emerged as a leading player in reduced cognitive function, leading to poorer academic performance. Conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue, diabetes, metabolic disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and autoimmune challenges can significantly impact a child’s ability to concentrate, process information, and retain knowledge. The burden of managing these illnesses often leads to frequent absences, fatigue, and decreased engagement in the learning process, hampering academic progress.
The prevalence of chronic diseases in children has risen over the years, exacerbating the challenge. Factors such as sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy dietary habits, and exposure to environmental toxins have contributed to the surge in these conditions. As a result, an increasing number of students are grappling with the adverse effects of chronic diseases on their brain health, hindering their academic potential.
A comprehensive approach needs to be developed, and quickly! Most importantly, it must incorporate health optimization (ie. reversing preventable chronic disease, rather than having kids take more meds), reformed educational environments, and community support to address the complex interplay between chronic disease and brain health in children. What can be more important than this??
Restructuring communities to support our kids is a process, as is reforming our educational environments. However, when it comes to implementing changes towards optimizing your little one’s health, you can start making a big impact today! So, let’s get started!
Nurturing Brain Health Through Nutrition
Picture this – a brain that’s well-fed and firing on all cylinders! You guessed it; nutrition plays a pivotal role in supporting your child’s cognitive abilities.
Nourishing food truly IS your child’s best medicine. On the flip side, the wrong food – or what I call “non-food” – can be like a slow-drip poison leading to…you named it…chronic disease.
Think nutrient-dense foods like omega-3 fatty acids from salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds, which are like rocket fuel for the brain. And don’t forget those antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies to keep those neural pathways clear of any mental traffic jams.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – how do I convince my kid to eat all that green stuff? Well, let’s get creative! Whip up some brain-boosting smoothies with berries, spinach, coconut milk, and a dash of honey and cinnamon. It’s a sneaky way to make brain optimization a delicious part of the day. Get up a bit earlier and make your little one a spinach omelet before she gets on the school bus. For a yummy and healthful school lunch idea, try Vietnamese rice flour wraps with bean sprouts, carrots, cucumber, and a tahini sauce, instead of the brainless and nutrient-poor PB&J sandwich on white bread. For dinner, shrimp and cauliflower rice is fun, quick and nourishing. My general foodie rules of thumb are to:
1. Reduce/avoid gluten.
Gluten is found in wheat, spelt, barley, rye, oats unless they are certified gluten-free, triticale, and a few other grains. Excellent alternatives include quinoa, teff, coconut flour, amaranth, gluten-free oats, and rice. Gluten-free baking mixes are widely available these days. I generally recommend not opting for gluten-free prepared foods and breads, as these can be highly processed and not much more healthful than their conventional counterparts.
2. Reduce/avoid dairy.
I know there are many conflicting opinions out there on this, but from my clinical experience I’ve seen too many dairy sensitivities in my practice, esp. in kids with chronic allergies, stuffy noses, respiratory infections, and digestive problems that improve when they stop eating dairy. By “dairy” I mean cow milk-derived products including cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese etc.
3. Reduce/avoid “chemical food.”
In other words, I recommend avoiding artificial ingredients, as these are not food and shouldn’t be on grocery store shelves.
Increase organic and locally-grown food, as these are generally more nutritious and lower in glyphosate and other pesticides/herbicides/fungicides/othercides.
I’ll dedicate an article specifically to healthy recipes for kiddos, as there’s a lot I want to cover on this. Stay posted!
The Power of Sleep
Sleep is a MEGA SUPERPOWER for the brain. Adequate sleep helps consolidate memories and enhances overall cognitive function. Help your child establish a consistent sleep routine to ensure your little genius wakes up ready to conquer the day! What is considered a good amount of sleep? It ranges from approx. 11hrs for 5 year olds, to 10 hours for 10 year olds, and 9 hours for 17 year olds.
And here’s a tip: Create a serene sleep sanctuary for your child. A calm and peaceful environment can work wonders in helping your kids drift off to dreamland. I recommend keeping electronics out of the bedroom between designated hours. A cool, dark environment improves melatonin (sleep hormone) production, as does avoiding food and screens within 2-3 hours of bedtime .
Mindfulness and Meditation for Focus
In our fast-paced world, even kids can benefit from a moment of Zen. Mindfulness and meditation have been scientifically proven to boost focus and reduce stress. It’s like a spa day for the brain!
So, get your kiddo’s “om” on! Introduce simple mindfulness exercises into your child’s daily routine. Teach them to take a few deep breaths, savor the moment, and be present; you could even make this into an evening family routine. Because this is not just for the little ones – you can benefit from this, too! First thing in the morning is also a great time to incorporate a mindfulness activity or meditation. There are plenty of YouTube videos to help get you started. Here’s a 10-minute mindfulness clip as an example, but there are lots to choose from on Youtube, so your child can use different ones for variety. My opinion is that moments of down-time are critical, and even more so for the developing brain. Check out my article on White Time that delves deeper into this.
Physical Activity & Brain Function
Regular physical activity is like a magic elixir for cognitive function. It increases blood flow to the brain, improving memory and creativity. So, get those kids moving! Encourage outdoor play, sports, and activities that get their hearts pumping. Who knows, you might even rediscover your inner child as you play tag or hide-and-seek with them – talk about a win-win!
Consider taking a walk as a family together after dinner. Here are just a few reasons why taking a walk after dinner is so wonderful for the brain:
- It’s a great way to bond- your family can “decompress” and share with each other on the day’s events
- Walking supports digestion, which is closely connected to brain function
- Walking improves circulation prior to going to bed
- The burst of oxygenated outdoor air can facilitate an easier transition to dreamland
Brain-Enhancing Supplements and Herbs
Now, let’s talk about supplements. No, I’m not advocating for giving your kids a pharmacy’s worth of pills. But certain brain-boosting supplements like omega-3 fatty acids and selective vitamins and minerals can provide that extra brain-boosting edge. Some of my top pics are a good whole-food multi, theanine, fish or krill oil, B vitamins, Vitamin C, magnesium, the herbs lemon balm and passionflower, along with prebiotics and probiotics are some to consider.
Of course, always consult with your child’s doctor before adding supplements to his or her regimen. We don’t want them to turn into little brainiacs with superhero side effects!
Limiting Screen Time for Optimal Brain Function
Ah, screen time – the modern-day nemesis of cognitive health. While screens are a part of our lives, excessive use can negatively impact young, developing brains.
Set reasonable screen time limits and encourage alternative brain-stimulating activities. Board games, reading, or engaging in arts and crafts can work wonders. And remember, a tech-free zone during bedtime ensures a more peaceful sleep for everyone! I recommend being screen-free for three hours before bedtime, as the blue light in screens has been shown to impact production of melatonin (aka. the brain hormone).
Cognitive Training & Brain Games
Remember those brain teasers and puzzles from your childhood? Turns out, they were doing more than just giving you a headache – they were exercising your brain! Introduce your kids to cognitive training exercises and brain games. There are some fantastic apps and websites (or better yet, check out those crossword puzzle booklets by the grocery store check-out counter) – these can make learning feel like play. Just don’t be surprised when your kids start challenging you to a brain duel!
Side note on screen time: I take the stance that we should limit screen time as much as possible for as long as possible when it comes to our children, and that screen time should be for only two reasons: 1. intellectually beneficial, or 2. gently entertaining.
The Importance of Emotional Well-Being
Brain health isn’t just about IQ; it’s about EQ too. Emotional intelligence plays a vital role in academic achievement and overall well-being.
Support your child’s emotional well-being by creating a safe space for open communication. Encourage them to express their feelings and teach them healthy coping mechanisms. Remember, a happy heart leads to a happy mind.
Collaborating with Teachers & Schools
Teamwork makes the dream work – and it’s no different when it comes to your child’s brain health. Talk to your child’s teachers and schools about implementing brain-friendly practices in the classroom. Advocate for more physical activity breaks, mindfulness exercises, and brain-boosting activities. If there’s outdoor space nearby, see if the teacher can take the kids for learning walks. Creating an environment where young minds can flourish is a team effort!
There you have it, folks – an arsenal of brain hacks to supercharge your child’s mind as they embark on (or continue) their academic journey. Remember, each child is unique, so feel free to mix and match these techniques to find what works best for your child.
And always remember, you are the ultimate brain coach for your kids. A healthy brain is an unstoppable force! So, let’s raise a generation of sharp, creative, and emotionally resilient young minds – ready to conquer the world one brilliant idea at a time!
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – www.eatright.org
- National Sleep Foundation – www.sleepfoundation.org
- Headspace – www.headspace.com
- American Academy of Pediatrics – www.aap.org
- Child Mind Institute – www.childmind.org
- Lumosity – www.lumosity.com
- American Heart Association – www.heart.org
- HealthyChildren.org – www.healthychildren.org
- The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
- Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
- The Education Trust. (2021). “The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement.” Retrieved from: https://edtrust.org/resource/the-covid-19-slide/. Accessed 28 July 2023.
- National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). “The Condition of Education 2021.” Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_tea.asp. Accessed 28 July 2023.
- Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2018). “PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do.” Retrieved from: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/pisa-2018-results-volume-i_5f07c754-en. Accessed 28 July 2023.
- Anderson, K. E., & Byrom, A. R. (2020). “Impact of Chronic Health Conditions on Academic Achievement: A Systematic Review.” Journal of School Nursing, 36(4), 283-302. doi: 10.1177/1059840520912223. Accessed 28 July 2023.
- Taras, H., & Potts-Datema, W. (2005). “Chronic Health Conditions and Student Performance at School.” Journal of School Health, 75(7), 255-266. doi: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2005.tb07346.x. Accessed 28 July 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). “Childhood Chronic Illnesses and Educational Outcomes.” Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-illnesses-childhood-educational-outcomes.htm. Accessed 28 July 2023.