5 Ways to rev up your child's brain for learning

Sep 6, 2013 at 5:29 p.m. ET

The new school year is upon us, and so is nightly homework, long days of soaking up knowledge and, eventually, report cards. And while getting children to do their homework can be a feat for any parent, there's a lot more to enhancing learning than just doing work.

Happy siblings having breakfast before school

In fact, research shows there are key factors that help rev up a child's brain to maximize learning. Let's take a look.


Start with a good breakfast

According to The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success through Healthy School Environments, developed by the National Dairy Council in partnership with the GENYOUth Foundation, American College of Sports Medicine and American School Health Association, skipping breakfast and hunger have an immediate negative effect on learning ability.

"Over half (62 percent) of all teens come to school without breakfast each day," says Karen Kafer of the National Dairy Council. "Breakfast-eaters have better attention and memory than breakfast-skippers."

Quick breakfast ideas include cut-up fruit, whole-grain cereals (with less than 5 grams of sugar) with milk, boiled eggs, yogurt topped with fruit, and baked goods made with whole-grain flour and added fruits and veggies.


Provide a nutrient-rich diet

Children (and their brains) need nutrients to grow and thrive. According to The Wellness Impact, better diet quality is linked to superior academic performance.

"Parents want to maximize nutrition at every meal and snack by focusing on food groups," says Jill Castle, MS, RD, and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. "Main meals should have three to five food groups (whole grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy and non-dairy alternatives, healthy fats and protein) and snacks should have two to three food groups."

So instead of the same old goldfish or crackers for a snack, try whole-grain crackers with cheese and some fruit.


Physically activate the brain

According to the The Wellness Impact, neuroimaging research reveals that certain parts of the brain are larger in fit children, enhancing learning. But that's not all. Even short bouts of activity during the day positively affect the brain's structure, making it more like a sponge.

"Students who are more active during school perform better on standardized tests for reading, math and spelling," says Kafer. "Yet three in four high school students aren’t active for (at least) 60 minutes each day."

In addition to organized sports, make regular activity a part of each day, and try getting your kids to be active before they dive into homework. If your child is having trouble concentrating, go for a 10-minute walk with him. His brain will be more receptive afterwards.


Ensure enough shut-eye

How much sleep is enough? While there is no magic number, the National Sleep Foundation recommends preschoolers (3 to 5 years) get 11 to 13 hours, school-age children (6 to 10) get 10 to 11 hours and teenagers (10 to 17) get 8.5 to 9.25 hours.

The brain needs rest to be at its best, but many kids are falling short. According to a recent study in China, children with daytime sleepiness and short sleep duration at night had impaired academic achievement.

Make sure you establish a regular routine and bedtime hour, so kids know what to expect.


Promote a healthy school environment

The Wellness Impact encourages schools and/or districts to establish a wellness committee to create and initiate a wellness policy. Ask if your child's school has one, and if they do, join the committee to help review and update it. If they don't, maybe you could help start one.

With breakfast, nutrient rich-diets, physical activity, enough sleep and a healthy school environment, kids everywhere will be more than ready to learn. What parent doesn't want that?

More tips for the new school year

Saving money after school starts
Teaching kids responsibility at school
Time management tips for sending the kids back to school