Fresh notebooks. New backpacks. Summer turning to autumn. A looming zombie apocalypse. Ahh…the start of school!
As your kids return to school, their minds may be stuck in summer, and their bodies may linger in a different time zone altogether. Even if family travel didn’t take you to a distant coast or foreign shores, it is a pretty fair bet that your kids were happy with a pattern of staying up late and sleeping in later, luxuriating in the opportunities for both recreation and rest that summer can afford. Alas, summer schedules have come to an end.
Yet, many (perhaps most) students persist with their late night hours even as their mornings get earlier -- a pattern which leads to insufficient sleep that affects their learning, their mood, and their health.
One of the principal roles of sleep is to facilitate the consolidation of memory. Don’t want to learn something and then lose it? Sleep well. Nearly a century of scientific findings “characterize sleep as a brain state optimizing memory consolidation.” Without adequate sleep, what is learned during the day does not get encoded well into long-term memory. A lack of sleep is often behind the phenomenon of students cramming or holding onto information just long enough for the next day’s quiz but failing to apply the information to tests and exams that are more cumulative. Moreover, rest is the basis of all activity. Without adequate rest, we lack the energy and focus to do our best work. Consider the craze of Whoop, which one-ups Fitbit by tracking sleep to configure the most effective workouts for professional and college athletes, members of the military, and Olympians.
Had Disney better understood brain science when it was crafting Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Grumpy and Sleepy might have been combined as one character. One of the principal cognitive functions impaired by sleep deprivation is emotional control. People are more irritable when tired and also more easily stressed. The amygdala, the part of the brain that, among other things, detects threats, is about 60% more reactive when people are tired. A weary mind sees threat everywhere, which can lead us to feel that our best friend, who is upset, is upset with us, that our stern teacher is picking on us, that our parents, who asked how our day went, are inquisitors rather than inquisitive.
Lastly, about that zombie apocalypse. Many parents note that “they just cannot get themselves out of bed in the morning,” when really the issue is getting to bed in the evening. When kids are stuck in summer mode and fail to quickly adjust to SST (School Standard Time), a sleep debt begins to accumulate. Fast forward a couple of weeks when students are now fully tired, watch for the first burst of cool autumn weather (because viruses LOVE cool, dry weather), and wait for the outbreak: sick, sniffly, brain-fogged teens shuffling through their days. Zombies may be cool on TV, but they’re rarely high-performance individuals.
What to do: PLAN for sleep.
- The typical adolescent needs about nine hours of sleep a night. So, a little math will show them how to plan to get sixty-three hours in a week. Sit down with your kids, schedules in hand, and find those hours. What strategies will get them to sixty-three?
- Set deadlines. If school means a wake-up time of 6:30 am, then logic (and basic math) suggests a bedtime of 9:30-10:30 pm. PLAN for that. People are motivated by deadlines. Don’t just go to bed after everything else is done. Plan a time for bed and arrange your evening so that everything gets done by that time.
- Aim to keep a weekend routine similar to school hours. It’s fine to sleep later on the weekends, but ideally not four or more hours later, lest you “jetlag” yourself every weekend.
- Charge cellphones in the kitchen, not your bedroom. Most people are so addicted to their smartphones that they cannot resist checking them, whether that means watching one more YouTube video or responding to any text anybody might send you. To resist the temptations created by the ability to access the whole known universe through your phone, remove it from your environment: that way, you only need to resist it once. Put your iPhone to bed so that you can unplug at the same time.
Planning for sleep means planning for a good school year. Plan on it being a good one for you!