We are facing a huge conflict in our country. A battle is ensuing that is pulling our kids (and parents of school-aged kids) in two very distinct and disparate directions. This battle is putting our children in physical danger. It is harming our kids brain and physical development. It is making it more difficult for them to perform on tests.
What is this battle?
It is the fight between sleep and academia. And by “academia” here I’m talking about our public school system.
In the red corner we have sleep:
Weighing in at a whopping 9.5 hours a night.
It restores and builds muscle and connective tissue.
It solidifies memories and strengthens brain development.
It provides massive doses of energy and stimulates movement.
In the blue corner we have academia.
Weighing in at a whopping 4.0 GPA.
It is vital to securing a successful future.
It is the foundation for critical and life-changing research.
It enhances the quality of life of everyone on earth.
These two things really don’t seem like they should be at odds with each other. Seems like Academia would WANT Sleep in its corner to help it learn and test well and create new ideas.
But that’s not happening. Academia is beating the ever-loving snot out of Sleep. And it’s not even close.
A recent statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics says that “insufficient sleep in adolescents [is] an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”
And why are kids not getting enough sleep for the most part?
School start times.
They just keep getting earlier and earlier. Some New York schools are starting school 40 MINUTES earlier this year than they did last year.
Why? To squeeze in all the new curricula so that we can meet standardized test scores and “compete” in math and science and engineering around the world. All this in the midst of more and more schools cutting P.E. or recess, too!!!!
[Tangent: so let’s stuff kids in little cubicles all day, deprive them of their innate desire to move, deprive them of sleep, feed them processed sugar and corn, then wonder why in the world they can’t compete in the STEM fields?!]
So how are our kids supposed to learn and test well when they can’t even hold their eyes open? I have no clue.
Basically, kids need somewhere between 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep. Any parent can tell you what happens when kids get tired — or overtired. Irritability. Irrationality. Surliness. Testiness.
Yeah — they’re tough to be around. When my kids cross that threshold I usually end up faking a knee injury and driving myself to the ER.
Let’s do a best case scenario hypothetical — you live five minutes from school and have one child. School starts at 8 AM which means you need to leave the house around 7:45. Factor in time to get ready, eat a breakfast of healthy, “human” foods, grab your backpack, brush teeth, etc…and you need to wake up by around 7:15 at the absolute latest (teenage girls need much longer than that — GET OUT OF THE BATHROOM! GIVE SOMEONE ELSE A CHANCE!). Back that up 9.5 hours and bedtime should be 9:45 PM.
But wait. That 9.5 hours of sleep kids need to get isn’t 9.5 hours of “time in bed.” It’s 9.5 hours of sleep. So even if you’re in bed at 9:45 and the alarm goes off at 7:15 — you’re not getting a full 9.5 hours. You need to be in bed even earlier, like, say, 9:15 or even 9 PM.
Anyone with kids older than around 13 have a strict 9 PM bedtime?
My kids are all under the age of 6, so it’s a little easier to pull off an earlier bedtime (which is about 8:30 this time of year).
But that’s really hard for parents of middle and high-school kids to pull off. Especially with extra-curriculars, homework, Facebook, social events and any time the parents actually want to spend with their kids all added up and thrown in the mix.
It seems like pretty common knowledge that chronic sleep deprivation affects you in pretty significant ways. You don’t need research or hard data to know this. You just need to pull an all-nighter, or take care of a sick kid all night, or have insomnia, to know how messed up you get after just ONE NIGHT of bad sleep.
And our kids are having to suffer through an ENTIRE SCHOOL YEAR of sleep deprivation. It may just be me — but I find that INSANE.
The AAP suggests delaying school start times across the country, and I am all for that. Even thirty more minutes of sleep would help.
Well, just get your kids in bed earlier. Simple as that, right?
That’s a fine and dandy argument, but not one that is realistic in my opinion. Not with everything else our kids our dealing with, and also with how the schedule we’ve put them on with such little encouragement for movement throughout the day completely messes with their sleep-wake cycles causing them to not be sleepy when it’s time for bed. So that 9:45 PM bedtime ends up being 10:30 or 10:45 PM.
I used to watch the Tonight Show in my bed every night, turn the TV off, lay there for an hour wondering why I couldn’t sleep, wake up at 6 AM, and fall asleep in every single class all day.
In the studies of delayed start times that have been done, the bedtimes pretty much remained the same but the kids got more sleep — and guess what? Test scores increased and kids were reportedly less sleepy during the day, not late as often, and had longer attention spans.
I’ll bet the teachers would say the kids were less irritable and testy as well, wouldn’t you?
Until the school districts stop pitting Sleep and Academia against each other, there’s really not a whole lot we can do with school start times other than make your frustrations felt with the powers that be.
But there are things within your control as parents to help your kids get the best sleep they can, even if they have to wake up at 5:30 AM:
- make sure they get to bed at the same time every night
- eliminate as much while/blue light exposure as humanly possible after sunset — this means no computer or gaming time which may be a battle for some
- ensure they sleep in a dark and cold room
- avoid stimulants in the afternoon and evening like soda, chocolate, or caffeine
Do what you can as parents to give your kids their best chance at a good night’s sleep.
And if anyone out there has any pull and wants to start some sort of huge political action committee that will make this an issue and actually make school boards delay start times — let me know, because I’m all in.