Friday, August 24, 2012

Back to School, Back to Routine
by Stephanie Rafanelli

As a magical summer winds to a close, I cannot help but get excited for the new school year. After two decades in the classroom as a student and another two decades as a teacher, my calendar begins at the end of August. In our house, a return to the routine of the school year revolves around the one immutable piece of the schedule: bed time. Summer sunlight, travel, spontaneous family movie nights, and more all wreak minor havoc on sleep. With the added complication of juggling different sleep needs for our four, ten, and thirteen year-olds, our evenings can be, in a word, interesting.

Like Madeline Levine described in her recent blog, sleep is one of the most critical factors in maintaining health and happiness. In addition to the studies she cited linking good sleep habits as a protective factor against depression and extreme crabbiness, sleep helps the brain consolidate memories and learning, allows the body to process carbohydrates correctly (preventing excessive weight gain), benefits the immune and cardiovascular systems, and increases response time.

Our ten and four year-olds still embrace bedtime as one of the best parts of the day. At our last family dinner party, our little one marched over to my chair and announced, indignantly, “It is way past my bedtime.” Our middle child craves the final reading time at the end of the day and eagerly gets in bed with a book. At any rate, we have not had any occasion to relay any of the fascinating findings from sleep studies to our younger children. However, we have begun discussing sleep habits with our oldest.

For some reason, our thirteen year-old does not find these studies as riveting as we do (although I saw a flicker of interest in his eyes when I mentioned the important role sleep plays in athletic performance). Until he does, we have tried to give him increasing autonomy over the rest of his schedule. Our not-so-hidden agenda is for our children to develop their own abilities to plan ahead and eventually create their own healthy schedules. Additionally, we hope to minimize conflict by allowing reasonable independence wherever we can.

Over the past two years we have allowed our middle school student to choose when to do his homework and when to take breaks. We give multiple advance notices before family events or carpool changes. We eat dinner together and have a habit of asking, “What’s on deck for tomorrow?” The family calendar is on the kitchen wall and everyone (including the four year-old) contributes items to the schedule. My husband and I share when we have had a scheduling misstep and we talk about how it affected our day.

Now approaching eighth grade, our oldest has a fair amount of freedom. He knows his school schedule, his extra-curricular schedule, and his bedtime. He is now in charge of managing his homework, reading, whiffle ball, music, and sibling play time. As you might imagine, there have been some failures – at Challenge Success, we would call these successful failures – in his planning over the past two years. He has had a few 9 pm realizations that he forgot an assignment or underestimated the time a task might take. He has had to go to bed with an unfinished assignment and then manage the consequences the following day (more on this in next month’s blog). Far more often though, he has greeted me at breakfast by saying something like, “I really want to go see the basketball game this afternoon, so I am going to do my Spanish homework right when school ends.”

Given our experience observing cursive practice last year, we do not expect this process to be quite as smooth in the future with our rising fifth grader. In the interest of eventual self-sufficiency, he will get to make more choices about his schedule. While I am not at all certain how many successful failures lay in our near future, I do know one thing: bed time is non-negotiable.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Back to School Alert: The Necessity of a Sane Bedtime

As a culture, we’ve somehow gotten to a place where a good night’s sleep is typically seen as a luxury. Sleep deprivation is de rigueur for many adults all year long. And as summer fades away and a new school year looms on the horizon, it’s about to be even more true for our kids.

It’s not hard to see why sleep has fallen to the bottom of the priority list for many families. Our lifestyles are crowding it out. Our kids often have not just one but several extracurricular activities, each of which requires a significant time commitment. And let’s not forget homework: most kids have plenty of it to fit in between soccer practice or music lessons or karate class.

By the time we’ve picked up the kids from whatever practice they’re at, shoveled in dinner and gotten them started on homework, it’s already late. By the time they’re done with assignments and study time it’s alarmingly late—but what are you going to do?

The thinking goes like this: we live in a super-competitive world where getting a good job requires getting into a good school which requires getting good grades in tough classes…and building up a good, application-worthy slate of extracurriculars. To fit all of this in something has to give. And that “something” is sane bedtimes.

These kids are just going to have to suck it up and get used to running on less sleep, parents may think. There’s really no other choice.

It’s true that there are no easy answers for solving the “sleep deficit” our kids are suffering. Yet it’s also true that this is no trivial issue. Getting too little sleep doesn’t just make kids cranky. It makes them depressed, cripples their relationship skills, and affects their memory. In extreme cases, problems caused by lack of sleep may even lead to suicide.

Studies show that kids who get less sleep are more likely to report suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Alternately, teens whose parents actively set appropriate bed-times are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. Once thought to be a symptom of depression, it is beginning to appear that a lack of sleep promotes depression.1

And even teen crabbiness is being tied to a lack of sleep. Kids who don’t get enough sleep or who don’t sleep well (waking up for repeated texts) have more difficulty processing emotional information. That means they aren’t getting it right not only with you, but with their peer group as well.2 Their misreading of your facial expression easily leads to outbursts of “Why are you being so critical?” when you were simply thinking about whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. Teens who are self-centered naturally to begin with, hardly need another factor to add to their difficulties in being tuned in to others.

To overcome the drowsiness caused by sleep deprivation, many kids resort to taking “study drugs” like Adderall (meant for kids with ADHD), which can impair long-term learning and can produce fatal arrhythmias. (While few parents condone the use of study drugs, neither do they do anything to stop it. If the child is on the honor roll and seems okay staying up half the night, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to exactly how they’re achieving so much.)

Evidence like this strikes dread into every parent’s heart. We’ve always heard “Kids need their sleep!” but they also need to be able to compete in a tough global workplace once they’re grown and on their own. So what’s the solution? First let’s be clear on what the “right” amount of sleep is for kids at different ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children get 10-12 hours of sleep each night, preteens get 10 and teenagers get about 9.

Do children differ in their sleep needs? Of course studies always look at groups of children not your individual child. So, while I can’t give one-size-fits-all advice (no one can), I can offer some guidelines and common sense perspective that may get lost amidst the handwringing about how “it’s just not possible” given the amount of homework she has.

Set a consistent bedtime – Kids who have a consistent and appropriate bedtime learn the basics of “sleep hygiene” or good sleep habits early in life. You can’t force a child to sleep (a real problem with teens whose biological rhythms are at odds with their school schedules). However, you can optimize the chances of sleep by making sure kids are lying down in a quiet and dim room.

Make sure kids have a half hour or so before bedtime to “unwind” – Figure out with your children what relaxes them – a hot shower, a good book or a backrub. It’s hard to go from full throttle to sleep without some winding down. Learning to relax has many benefits from easing your child into sleep, to learning how to calm down before a test, to knowing how to soothe himself when he’s upset.

No electronics in the bedroom – Kids do not need one more iteration of the day’s drama before trying to go to sleep. So no cell or texting. The light thrown off by computers has been shown to stimulate the retina and make sleep more difficult. Younger kids in particular should not have a computer in the bedroom.

Talk to your child’s school about keeping homework in line with best practices – the reason most kids don’t get enough sleep is because they are struggling to complete homework after a long day. If your child is doing more than 10 minutes or so per grade of homework in elementary school, an hour or so in middle school and 2- 2 1/2 hours in high school then they are working past the point of homework providing any advantage.

A single letter grade doesn’t determine a future. Neither does an Ivy League education. Your child’s success or failure as an adult isn’t set in stone in high school. To parent as if it does is to create an exhausting, unfulfilling blur of a life for your child—and ironically, it causes other problems that work against your child’s long-term health and happiness.

You wouldn’t withhold food or water from your child in the quest for academic success, would you? Don’t withhold sleep, either. It really is the same thing.

Insist on a sane bedtime this school year. And don’t worry so much about the future: happy, healthy, wide-awake children will have the energy and resourcefulness to create a rewarding life for themselves. If you can create the conditions for that, you’ve done your job as a parent.

1 (Gangwisch, J. E., Babiss, L. A., Malaspina, D., Turner, J., Zammit, G. K., & Posner, K. (2010). Earlier Parental Set Bedtimes as a Protective Factor Against Depression and Suicidal Ideation. SLEEP, 33(1).

2 (Soffer-Dudek, N., Sadeh, A., Dahl, R., & Rosenblat-Stein, S. (2011). Poor Sleep Quality Predicts Deficient Emotion Information Processing over Time in Early Adolescence. SLEEP, 34(11), 1499-1508. <> )