Education Opinion


By Susan Graham — July 19, 2011 4 min read
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It’s mid-July, but we’ve had an uncommonly nice weather this weekend. I’ve been enjoying one of the guilty pleasures of summer--sitting on the porch and reading. I take my book and a glass of limeade, turn on the ceiling fan, settle into my wicker chaise lounge, look out over my garden and read.

At least I start reading. But I must admit to another summer indulgence. When I get still, comfortable and calm, I have a tendency to drift off and take a nap. I used to be annoyed with myself for falling to sleep, but over the years I’ve become more permissive. Now one of my summer projects is catching up on sleep because, according to this Scientific American article, I am chronically and critically sleep deprived.

A 2005 survey by the National Sleep Foundation reports that, on average, Americans sleep 6.9 hours per night--6.8 hours during the week and 7.4 hours on the weekends. Generally, experts recommend eight hours of sleep per night, although some people may require only six hours of sleep while others need ten. That means on average, we're losing one hour of sleep each night--more than two full weeks of slumber every year.

Whoops! During the school year I tend to manage on about five to six hours most nights, but it’s not that uncommon that I am still at this computer at two and I face the day with no more than four hours of sleep. I’ve done this for years now because late hours is how I’ve managed to balance a full personal life with a full teaching load, graduate school, and teacher leadership responsibilities. I wanted to have it all, and so I what I decided to give up was sleep. But among the animal kingdom, humans seem to be unique in their willingness to go without sleep. Have you ever noticed how much your pet sleeps? Sleep is natural and that makes us out of sync with our design. Science Daily reported that

Even though animals and humans may be able to adapt their sleep system to deal with repeated sleep restriction conditions, there could be negative consequences when this pattern is maintained over a long period of time. This brings us back to the idea that repeated partial sleep restriction in humans has been linked to metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease.

Yet, I admit that I see my ability to remain functional in spite of insufficient rest as sort of a badge of honor; and I’m not alone. I know a lot of adults who are sleep deprived. But what may be more concerning is that our children and teenagers are chronically overtired . School age and preteens need 10 to 12 hours and adolescents need between 8.5 and 9.5 hours. But they are getting less and less. Since 1970 they have lost approximately one hour per night.

Insufficient sleep impacts the physical health. We are struggling with a national epidemic of childhood obesity and, at the same time research tells us that there is a corollary between sleep deprivation in children and adolescents and obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. No parent would encourage their child athletes to stoke up on candy bars and sodas, but many of those same parents don’t hesitate to get kids up early or keep them up late for soccer or swim team practice.

In the last thirty years, we’ve seen a huge increase in attention deficient and hyperactivity disorders in the last thirty years. The inattention, hyperactivity, forgetfulness, poor impulse control or impulsivity and distractibility that characterizes ADHD make school and personal life difficult for children. More exercise or medication or altered learning conditions are often part of a treatment plan, but the link between ADHD and lack of sleep is rarely addressed.

The apparent increase in bullying in our schools gets regular headlines. When we discuss how to deal with bullying, no one suggests earlier bedtimes. Yet according the research at the University of Michigan Medical School, " Children who are bullies or have conduct problems at school are more likely to be sleepy during the day.”

So we know that lack of sleep can impact physical health and emotional health, but if we do want our kids to be smart and to be smart they have to study hard. And to they study hard they’ll just have to put in an extra hour and get that homework finished. But maybe not because according to research by Dr. Matthew Walker of UC Berkley,

During sleep, the brain shifts what it learned that day to more efficient storage regions of the brain. Each stage of sleep plays a unique role in capturing memories....The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night.... We have an incendiary situation today where the intensity of learning that kids are going through is so much greater, yet the amount of sleep they get to process that learning is so much less. If these linear trends continue, the rubber band will soon snap.

We push our kids hard these days. We haul them out of bed at 6:30 so we can drop them off at daycare at 7:30 so we can be at work at 8:00. Then we take pick them up at 5:30, feed them a quick dinner and try to fit in soccer practice or music lessons or church activities and a little family time. There’s still homework and reading and bath time and it’s tough to get them in bed before 9:00. But if they get the 10 to 12 hours they needed, that’s not enough. Then they get older and practices get longer and homework becomes more complicated and there’s the social thing and maybe a part time job and many of our middle school and high school kids function on less than 5 hours rather than the 9 hours of sleep they need. And somehow we’ve developed a mind set that says studying late into the night is an indication of future success.

I have a new grandson who is 7 months old. Ben is a very good baby. Translation: He sleeps regularly, deeply, and he does it a lot. When teenagers sleep regularly deeply and do a lot of it, grown ups roll their eyes. If is sleep desirable in a baby, why isn’t it desirable in a teenager?

In some high tech businesses napping is encouraged as a way to recharge creative energy and process new idea. If we really want to improve student learning, maybe we should reinstate naptime for all P-12 students. It sounds good to me.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.