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Published on August 28, 2013

Physical Education: The What, When and Why of Back-to-School Physicals

Dean Family Medicine Doctor Danielle Gindlesberger details why students need annual exams, what you can expect and what you should ask your child’s doctor before school starts

As the days draw near the start of the school year, it’s time again for your child’s physical. With all of the busy back-to-school preparations going on it can be overwhelming to know what to expect at the doctor’s office – and what questions you should ask to make sure your child is healthy physically and mentally before the school year starts.

What can I expect in the exam room?

Annual exams change as your child ages. Each exam will include a physical exam to check your child’s eyes, ears, throat, lungs and abdomen. For grade schoolers, the exam will also focus on how they are doing in school academically and socially. Home issues or concerns like TV/screen time (keep it under two hours per day), diet and activity will also come up.

“The goal of the physical is to ensure the child is healthy to learn and also to establish a safe place for the child to discuss any concerns such as bullying at school,” says Dean Family Medicine doctor Danielle Gindlesberger.

As your child enters middle and high school the doctor will want to discuss things like sex, drugs, alcohol and other unsafe behaviors. The goal now is not to be judgmental with your child, but to engage in the conversation, offer resources for any needed treatments and to encourage safe behavior.

“Once your child turns 13 you will be asked to step out of the exam room during a portion of the physical,” says Dr. Gindlesberger. “This is to allow your teen to start developing a relationship with us as the doctor and to encourage them to be honest about those issues they may not want parents to know about.”

Even after your child turns 16 and can drive themselves to their appointments, we will need parental permission to treat or even see a teen for a physical. You can send a note or call ahead to give permission, otherwise, it is necessary for a parent to be available by phone to consent for any treatment so a teen can be seen for a physical.

After your child turns 18, they can be seen and treated on their own.

Does my kid really need a physical every year?

Routine physical exams are recommended for all school aged children every one to two years. Depending on your child’s health, they might need annual physicals and more frequent follow-ups in the office for things like asthma management.

My child is signing up for a sport this year. Does he/she need a separate sports physical?

If your son or daughter is starting a sport they will need what’s called a “sports physical.” This can be done during your child’s regular physical exam. A sports physical incorporates additional questions into the exam that screen for sports related concerns such as injuries, concussions and other health problems that would be dangerous for an athlete.

For teens participating in school athletics, there is often a “sports physical form” required by the school. Student athletes must turn these in before they can participate in any school sanctioned sports. The forms need to be updated every two years. If your child is participating in a school sport, it is helpful to ensure that your child is up to date on their physical so that they are not delayed in starting their sport at school.

What should I ask the doctor?

For younger children, Dr. Gindlesberger encourages parents to ask about these three main topics:

  1. Healthy Behaviors & Eating: seeing adults have conversations about what makes healthy bodies is very meaningful for young children.
  2. School Experience: don’t just focus on the negatives. Remember to talk about your child’s strengths. This is a powerful time to let your child shine and then trouble shoot any issues. This can also help identify any learning disabilities and get your child the resources he/she needs to succeed.
  3. Growth: growth curves to look at height and weight have been around for a long time. Now, for children over age two, we look at children’s BMIs. This helps identify children that need to eat differently or have different activity levels. Discussing this with a doctor is important to prevent obesity and other weight problems when your child is older.

“Remember, the physician is your ally in your child’s health,” says Dr. Gindlesberger. “Our goal is for your child to be as healthy as possible and safe so that they can grow to be healthy adults. The groundwork you do as parents to instill healthful behaviors in your children will serve them well into adulthood.”

If your child has not had a physical in the past year or two, remember to call and schedule an appointment with his or her doctor today!

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