Many parents are keenly interested in the basic academic education of their youngsters—reading, writing, and arithmetic—but are not nearly as conscientious in finding out about the other learning that goes on in the classroom. A comprehensive health education program is an important part of the curriculum in most school districts. Starting in kindergarten and continuing through high school, it provides an introduction to the human body and to factors that prevent illness and promote or damage health.
The middle years of childhood are extremely sensitive times for a number of health issues, especially when it comes to adopting health behavior that can have lifelong consequences. Your youngster might be exposed to a variety of health themes in school: nutrition, disease prevention, physical growth and development, reproduction, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, consumer health, and safety (crossing streets, riding bikes, first aid, the Heimlich maneuver). The goal of this education is not only to increase your child's health knowledge and to create positive attitudes toward his own well-being but also to promote healthy behavior. By going beyond simply increasing knowledge, schools are asking for more involvement on the part of students than in many other subject areas. Children are being taught life skills, not merely academic skills.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of this health education for your child. Before long he will be approaching puberty and adolescence and facing many choices about his behavior that, if he chooses inappropriately, could impair his health and even lead to his death. These choices revolve around alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use; sexual behavior (abstinence, prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases); driving; risk-taking behavior; and stress management. Most experts concur that education about issues like alcohol abuse is most effective if it begins at least two years before the behavior is likely to start. This means that children seven and eight years old are not too young to learn about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, and that sexuality education also needs to be part of the experience of elementary-school-age children. At the same time, positive health behavior can also be learned during the middle years of childhood. Your child's well-being as an adult can be influenced by the lifelong exercise and nutrition habits that he adopts now.
Health education programs are most effective if parents are involved. Parents can complement and reinforce what children are learning in school during conversations and activities at home. The schools can provide basic information about implementing healthy decisions—for instance, how and why to say no to alcohol use. But you should be a co-educator, particularly in those areas where family values are especially important—for example, sexuality, AIDS prevention, and tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use.
Many parents feel ill-equipped to talk to their child about puberty, reproduction, sex, and sexually transmitted diseases. But you need to recognize just how important your role is. With sexual topics—as well as with many other areas of health—you can build on the general information taught at school and, in a dialogue with your youngster, put it into a moral context. Remember, you are the expert on your child, your family, and your family's values.
Education seminars and education support groups for parents on issues of health and parenting may be part of the health promotion program at your school. If they are not offered, you should encourage their development. Many parents find it valuable to discuss mutual problems and share solutions with other parents. Although some parents have difficulty attending evening meetings, school districts are finding other ways to reach out to parents—for instance, through educational TV broadcasts with call-in capacities, Saturday morning breakfast meetings, and activities for parents and children together, organized to promote good health (a walk/run, a dance, a heart-healthy luncheon).
In addition to providing education at home on health matters, become an advocate in your school district for appropriate classroom education about puberty, reproduction, AIDS, alcohol and other substance abuse, and other relevant issues. The content of health education programs is often decided at the community level, so make your voice heard.
As important as the content of a health curriculum may be, other factors are powerful in shaping your child's attitudes toward his well-being. Examine whether other aspects of the school day reinforce what your youngster is being taught in the classroom. For example, is the school cafeteria serving low-fat meals that support the good nutritional decisions encouraged by you and the teachers? Is there a strong physical education program that emphasizes the value of fitness and offers each child thirty minutes of vigorous activity at least three times a week? Does the school district support staff-wellness programs so that teachers can be actively involved in maintaining their own health and thus be more excited about conveying health information to their students?
In addition to school and home, your pediatrician is another health educator for you and your child. Since your child's doctor knows your family, he or she can provide clear, personalized health information and advice. For instance, the pediatrician can talk with your child about the child's personal growth patterns during puberty, relate them to the size and shape of other family members, and answer questions specific to your youngster's own developmental sequence and rate.
For most school-related health concerns, your pediatrician can provide you with specific advice and tailored guidance. You and your pediatrician may also consult with the school staff on how to deal most effectively with school time management of your child's health problem.