One secret weapon to a great school year is balance. For children to perform their best this school year, parents should ensure they get a good night’s sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and have plenty of opportunity for exercise.

Parents and educators alike can agree that kids need time to play outside. Outside play stimulates both the mind and the body, promotes better attention and focus in the classroom, and gives kids a much-needed outlet to release energy. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, calling recess “a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.” Studies show it offers important cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits, yet many schools are cutting down on breaks to squeeze in more lessons, which may be counterproductive, it warns.

But unfortunately, educators have the burden of squeezing in a near-impossible amount of learning expectations into an already-abbreviated school day. In fact, a 2005 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 7% of first-graders and 8% of third-graders had never had recess; while 14% of first-graders and 15% of third-graders only had 1 to 15 minutes per day of recess. So it’s a difficult balance to provide students, particularly at the lower elementary grades, with the right balance of recess and classroom time.

Several schools in Texas received national media attention in recent years for their approach to recess. In Fort Worth, TX, Eagle Mountain Elementary School began offering recess 4 times per day, for 15 minute intervals each. The results were extremely positive – from more focus in the classroom, to better ability to listen and follow directions, and fewer discipline issues.

So what can you do to help ensure your child gets the right balance of outside play and classroom engagement? Encourage your school administrators to offer more recess and physical activity time. Offer extracurricular opportunities to your kids to play and exercise. Help your kids strike that balance of building the brain and the body simultaneously. The results may astound you!

Getting kids to want to eat healthy meal choices can be a challenge. All parents have probably been there at one point or another – the meal time negotiation. It looks something like this:

Parent: “Ok, eat 2 more bites of your vegetables and then you’re done with dinner.”

Child: “Grooooaaaan. Do I have to???”

Parent: “Ok, what about 1 more bite of your veggies and 1 bite of your chicken?”

Child: “But I don’t like them.”

Parent: “Ok, final offer – 1 bite of chicken and finish all of your milk. But you get no dessert!”

Does this sound familiar? While some families are lucky enough to have kids who will eat anything (think “Mikey” from the old Life cereal commercials), most have to deal with a picky eater at least once during childhood. The benefits of a healthy, well-balanced diet for children are so far reaching; not the least of which is proper cognitive and physical development. But a proper diet also helps to stabilize children’s energy, gives them the ability to focus better in the classroom, and ultimately improves classroom performance and even grades over time. So how can you go from mealtime standoffs to mealtime successes? Here are some tips to help your kids establish good eating habits, and reap the benefits of a healthy diet:

It might come as a surprise, but establishing a regular family meal time can improve your children’s appetites. Children crave consistency, in all aspects of their lives. It helps them to establish expectations and predict future outcomes, as well as provides a sense of comfort in the routine.

Make the “good stuff” easy for your kids to get. Even if you don’t want to rid the house of all treats and goodies, it might make sense to at least keep them out of your kids’ immediate reach. Instead, consider making healthy choices like fruits, vegetables, and whole grain snacks easy to grab. Stacking the deck in this way helps improve your child’s chance of selecting a healthy choice over a sugary snack.

Control portion sizes at meal times and try to fill half of your child’s plate with vegetables and fruit. If the options on the plate are healthy and balanced, you can be less concerned about making sure they clean their plate, and more focused on making sure they had enough to fill themselves up.

Limit snacks and beverages, particularly for picky eaters. It’s easy for kids to fill up on snacks and drinks that won’t keep their appetites satisfied for a long period of time. If you limit snacks to 1 or 2 small snacks after school, your kids are more likely to want to eat dinner when it’s served.

Don’t give up on your picky eater. Most picky eating phases have more to do with exerting control over their environment than your children actually having an aversion to food. In fact, a food usually has to be introduced multiple times before a child will willingly eat it. So instead of forcing healthy options like vegetables on your picky eater, try making the experience fun and free of pressure. For example, cut the food into fun shapes. Or invite your child to help you prepare the food so they are more willing to want to try it. Or serve new foods alongside some of your children’s favorite foods to increase acceptance.

These are just a few ideas to help establish balance for our kids, and help them get off to a great start this school year! As always, do what works best for your family and don’t worry too much about whether or not your kids are eating enough Brussel sprouts. Take heart that your efforts now, no matter how challenging the meal time battles may be, will have long term payoff for your child – in the classroom and beyond!