Combating dehydration in the classroom
Everyone knows that it is important to drink plenty, even more important for growing children. I remember always being told to drink more as a child, but how much is enough and why is it so important to avoid dehydration in the classroom?
Dehydration is the word used when you don’t have enough water in your body and with the body being approximately 75% water; it isn’t hard to see why you need to keep yourself topped up. The standard recommendation for the amount of water that is needed on a daily basis to keep our bodies healthy is 1.5 – 2 litres, which is approximately 6-8 large glasses, and childrens isn't much different with the Food Standards Agency stating that they need a minimum of 1.2 litres of fluid a day.
The effects of dehydration can develop rapidly or more slowly, and often are mistaken for symptoms of something else – in fact one reason the symptoms tend to be missed by so many people, is simply they are so used to feeling below their best they don’t realise that their symptoms are of dehydration at all – which can make it difficult for teachers to spot the problem in their classrooms.
The symptoms of mild dehydration can include the child feeling irritable, or simply being less able to concentrate - which can occur without them even feeling thirsty. In addition to this children suffering from dehydration often complain of tiredness or headaches and we have all encountered the child that feels too lethargic to do anything but lay in a chair in front of the television by the time they get home. Although we have almost come to think of this behaviour as normal, the studies of recent years have come to show that it may, at least in part, be due to the effects of dehydration. Teachers in schools taking part in a scheme to improve the intake of water for school children (Food in Schools water provision pilot project) said that they find the classes they teach to be "a more settled and productive learning environment" and they believe this is because of the high availability of water to their students.
A study done by Leeds University showed that dehydrationin the classroom can also impact the mental performance of the children experiencing it. The university discovered that a dehydration level of 1-2% can impair the child's performance in mathmatics. And with an estimated 40% of children not drinking the FSA's recommended levels during their school day it is easy to see how big a problem this can be.
The child’s intake of water needs to be spread throughout the day. Children spend at least half of their waking hours at school, so logically they need to be drinking about half their daily intact of fluid during school hours. In warm weather they need to be encouraged to drink more, especially while exercising – this doesn’t just mean during their PE lessons, but also during their break times when they are racing around playing football or tag with friends.
In 2004, The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Washington DC, included a separate category of recommendation for teenage boys aged 14 and over who require a higher average fluid intake of 2.6 litres (about 11 large glasses) due to their tendency to participate in active sports.
Children need to be supervised while at school to ensure that they drink enough, as they do not instinctively know how much to drink. They can, however, be taught to recognize when they aren’t drinking properly. By teaching them that when they aren't drinking enough their urine will become concentrated (meaning they will produce smaller amounts of deep yellow, cloudy, smelly urine) and that if they are drinking enough then their urine should be no darker than the colour of pale straw, odourless and more regularly produced it gives them a better understanding of if they need to drink more or not.
All this being said though brings to mind another saying that we have all heard - “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” – this is also very true of children, simply telling them that they need to drink more and pressing a glass into their hand is not likely to work, so how can you encourage them to drink more?
Well, the most obvious answer is to give them drinks they like the taste of! Children will drink 45-50% more if they like the flavour. Also remember that foods like fruit and vegetables; ice-lollies and soups all have high water content and can help get more liquid into your child’s body if they are reluctant drinkers. Sending your child to school with a full bottle of their favourite drink so they have it to hand throughout the day is also helpful but finally, encourage your child to drink more when they are at home (and drink plenty yourself when you are around them) so that it becomes a habit and not a chore, and they don’t feel that you are trying to make them do something that you won’t yourself. You might be surprised by the difference in your child both at home and in the classroom when they are properly hydrated.