Back to School Brain Fog: There’s a Nap for That

Fresh notebooks. New backpacks. Summer turning to autumn. A looming zombie apocalypse. Ahh…back to school!

With your kids just returned to school but with minds still stuck in summer, their bodies may also be lingering in a different time zone. Even if family travel didn’t take you to different coasts or foreign shores, it is a pretty fair bet that your kids were happily in a pattern of staying up and sleeping in late, luxuriating in the opportunities for both recreation and rest that summer can afford. Alas, summer and summer schedules are at an end.

Yet, many (perhaps most) students persist with staying up late, even as they need to be ready for school hours, which leads to insufficient sleep that affects their learning, their mood, and their health.

One of the principal roles of sleep is consolidation of memory. Don’t want to learn something but 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 really learn the information such that they know it on tests and exams that are more cumulative. Moreover, rest is the basis for optimizing 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 work-outs for professional and college athletes, military, and Olympians .

Had Disney better understood brain science in 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 threat-detecting amygdala is about 60% more reactive when people are tired and is thus predisposed to see threat everywhere, leading 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. “When people have slept less, it’s a little like looking at the world through dark glasses.”

Lastly, about that zombie apocalypse. Many parents note that “he just cannot get himself 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, wait for the first burst of cool autumn weather (i.e. viruses LOVE cool, dry weather) and watch for the outbreak: sick, sniffly, brain-fogged teens shuffling through their days. Zombies may be cool on TV, but they are rarely high-performance individuals.

What to do: PLAN for sleep.

The typical adolescent needs about nine hours of sleep a night. So, using a little math, plan for how to help yours get sixty-three hours in a week.

  1. Set deadlines. If back to school means a wake-up time of 6:30am, then logic (and basic math) suggests a bedtime of 9:30-10:30. PLAN for that. People motivate to deadlines. Don’t just go to bed after everything else is done. Plan a time for bed and work to get everything done by then.
  2. Aim to keep a weekend routine similar to what you establish for school days. It’s fine to sleep later on the weekends, but ideally not four or more hours later, lest you jetlag yourself every weekend.
  3. 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 a text. To resist the temptations of the  whole known universe   that is accessible through your smart phone, you only need to resist it once by putting your iPhone to bed so you can unplug too.