Want to support your eighth-grader's physical health? Here are some tips that experts suggest.
School districts vary widely in the amount of physical education they offer in the curriculum, and by eighth grade physical fitness is usually no longer a daily part of the school curriculum. According to a recent Institute of Medicine report on physical activity among young people, even the best physical education curriculum fails to provide the necessary 60 minutes of recommended activity a day. Find out how much physical activity your child is getting each day at school and what sorts of activities they are doing in gym class. This will give you a better understanding of their overall level of physical activity.
It’s especially important for parents to step in and fill the void by encouraging physical activity after school and on weekends. One of the most effective ways for parents to do this is by modeling good behavior. Organize family activities that incorporate physical activity, such as walks and bike rides. Outdoor chores such as raking leaves or shoveling are a good way to squeeze exercise into a busy weekend. Finding a physical activity that you and your child can do together, such as swimming at the local YMCA, is a great way for both of you to exercise and for you to spend quality time together.
Physical activity goals
If everyone in the family is trying to be more active, set physical activity goals for the entire family. Set specific and achievable goals, like always taking the stairs or walking around the block every day after dinner, and check in each week to see who is doing best.
Research has shown that even relatively small variations in the amount of physical activity young people get can make the difference between a healthy weight and being overweight. If your eighth-grader is not physically active enough, encourage them to start by changing their behavior gradually. Even setting aside some time each day for jumping rope, kicking a ball in the yard, or skateboarding around the block will soon make a difference that they will be able to see and feel.
If you are concerned that your child is not active enough, try to find ways to make physical activity appeal more to him. If they enjoy competition, suggest competitive team sports that might appeal to them. If they are more solitary, running or swimming might have more appeal. If they are shy about exercising with other children, home exercise videos could help them be more active.
One reason that children are less physically active than in previous generations is that fewer and fewer children walk or bike to school. If doing so is a safe alternative for your child, encourage the practice.
Lessons through sport
Explore lessons and organized sports for your eighth-grader. These might include gymnastics classes or soccer or Little League. As they grow and their physical abilities progress, they may express an interest in sports that even a year ago were not of interest to them. Expose them to as many options for physical activities and sports as possible. Community organizations like the local YMCA often offer affordable and kid-friendly yoga or Tae Kwon Do classes, for example.
Encourage your child to try out different sports and activities and to find one that suits him. Some children resist team sports but can excel at individual sports like tennis or track. Make sure you let them sample a variety of sports to find their interest, and think of non-traditional sports, like fencing or frisbee that might appeal to them. Reward and encourage persistence, so that even if they are not a “natural athlete” they learn to enjoy participating and pushing themselves to improve.
Exercise & puberty
Exercise and regular activity help children feel comfortable with their bodies, which becomes especially important during puberty. Make sure your child knows about the changes that will take place in their body when they go through puberty — things like sweating more, developing stronger body odor, growing pubic hair, and having acne.
Exercise & academics
The link between physical activity and improved academic performance is becoming increasingly clear. According to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine on physical activity in schools, children perform cognitive tasks better after participating in a session of physical activity. The report also notes that “frequent bouts of physical activity throughout the day yield short-term benefits for mental and cognitive health.” Encourage your child to take play actively or exercise before doing their homework or studying and to take short active breaks from sedentary activities. For example, if they are getting bogged down on some especially homework difficult problems, suggest that they clear their head by walking the dog or kicking a ball outside.
Limit the amount of time your child is sedentary in front of the television or computer monitor. They should remain inactive for no more than an hour at a time.
In addition to being aware of whether your child is not getting enough exercise, pay attention if they appear to be exercising too much. It is around this time that many children become susceptible to pressure to lose weight and develop a certain body type through exercise and diet. Children who participate in certain sports or activities that emphasize weight targets or body shape, such as wrestling or ballet, can be especially vulnerable to this kind of pressure.
Talk to your eighth-grader about the body changes that accompany puberty, such as menstruation, an increase in body odor, the growth of pubic hair, and the development of acne. Encourage them to come to you with questions about health and hygiene or to seek advice from a physician or other reputable sources.
Make sure that your tween understands that their personal hygiene routine will have to be more rigorous than it was when they were younger. Showering or bathing daily with attention to the underarms, groin, backside, and feet is more important than ever.
Discuss with your eighth-grader whether they should be washing their hair every day. As their hair becomes greasier with the onset of puberty, your child may need to do so.
Talk to your daughter about good menstrual hygiene and make sure she has all the supplies that she needs. Explain the difference between sanitary pads and tampons, and make sure she understands that menstruation does not need to limit her ability to be physically active.
Talk to your child about shaving when you start to see facial hair or hair on their legs, and give them the necessary equipment to start doing so.
Body image issues increase sharply during adolescence. Use your child’s physical development to guide you through what subjects you should be addressing. If acne is a persistent problem, for example, consider seeking advice from a dermatologist.
Make sure that the information you’re passing on to your eighth-grader is current. Some of the hygiene advice you may have been given when you were younger, about things such as shaving or menstrual hygiene, may no longer apply.
Learning to handle their changing hygiene needs can be a challenge for some adolescents. Don’t be too hard on your eighth-grader if they are struggling or resistant. Make sure they understand how important hygiene is and that it is their responsibility to take care of their body and keep it clean.
Make sure that your tween has all the necessary supplies to insure that they are well-groomed and clean. Help them shop for razors, deodorant, and other necessary toiletries.
Your child should see a dentist for regular annual checkups, just as they see a pediatrician regularly. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends check-ups every six months, but also advises consulting with your child’s dentist about how often to visit based on your child’s oral health. Ask the dentist about measures such as fluoride supplements and dental sealants, which protect against cavities and decay.
Tooth decay / cavities
Tooth decay and cavities are entirely preventable yet remain widespread and affect children in the United States more than any other chronic infectious disease. Untreated dental problems can become infected, causing pain and problems with eating, speaking, and learning.
Your eighth-grader should be brushing their teeth for at least two minutes at least twice a day, and after eating, if possible.
See a dentist immediately if your child injures a tooth. Dental injuries are common among children through age 14, and if left untreated can result in severe complications.
If your child plays a contact sport, they should wear a mouth guard to protect against dental injury and concussion.
If a child’s permanent tooth becomes dislodged due to an injury, place the tooth in a container of milk and seek dental advice as soon as possible. Permanent teeth can sometimes be re-implanted successfully.
Experts recommend that you encourage your child to prioritize sleep, even as their schedule becomes busier with additional homework and extracurricular activities. One way to ensure that sleep is still a priority for them is by keeping a sleep journal. Have your teen record the time they go to bed and wake up every day. Use the information to map out their typical weekly schedule, incorporating time for meals, extracurricular activities, and homework. If their bedtime is constantly getting pushed back, they are probably overscheduled. Encourage them to cut back on their number of commitments and to establish realistic expectations for the amount of sleep they should be getting each evening.
Since most teens are not getting the recommended amount of sleep each evening, a 20-minute power nap could be helpful. However, experts caution that adolescents should not be sleeping after 4 p.m. because it will disrupt their evening of restful sleep. If they choose to nap, have them set an alarm to ensure that they wake up after 20 minutes.
Help your eighth-grader maintain a regular study schedule so that they aren't cramming the night before a major test. Studying for 20 to 30 minutes every night will ensure that they can get plenty of rest prior to an important exam.
Does your child have a lot of homework? Encourage them to complete the homework that requires a computer earlier in the evening. This way they avoid exposure to the stimulating lights of the computer during the time right before bed.
Though it is recommended that children keep a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week, for some families this is unrealistic. Encourage your eighth-grader to get to bed within an hour of their normal bedtime and wake up no later than two hours after their normal wake time. By establishing clear expectations for them on the weekends, you will make the rest of their week easier by avoiding an uneven sleep schedule.
Check your child’s bedroom to see if it is a dark, calm, and quiet environment. When you turn off the lights, there should be no illumination. Remove the television, computer and other electronics from their room since they emit a blue light that disrupts their sleep cycle.
Establish an electronic curfew for the entire family at least 30 minutes prior to your child going to bed. Model the behavior that you want to see in them by also turning off your cell phone and other technological devices.
Caffeine can affect the quality of your child’s sleep. Encourage them to cut down on their consumption by reducing the number of energy drinks, sweetened teas, and sodas in the home and limit their consumption, particularly in the hours after school.
To learn more, check out our eighth grade physical health guide page.
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Dr. Jayne Greenberg, District Director, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.