“Every single…school student I have ever measured in terms of their alertness is a walking zombie.”
– James Maas
Opposite my sofa in the front room I have a rather large bay window and nothing outside escapes my attention. For about 40 minutes, beginning at 7am every morning of the school year, as I sit on that sofa reading my morning paper, my eye catches all the kids from elementary to high school age trudging – heads hanging, shoulders slumped, mouths gaping in yawns, shuffling like the walking dead – down the sidewalk in front of my house on their way to school, lugging stuffed suitcase-sized backpacks half their height and weight.
Being the curious person I am, I got to wondering why these kids were headed to school so soon after sunrise. I asked the wife. She’s a non-teaching middle school librarian. She should know. I learned there are several possibilities – maybe they are getting the free breakfast at school; maybe they are going to a school outside their home-school boundries, requiring them to take a public bus (notoriously slow) instead of a school bus; in any event, school starts at 8am.
When I went to school, I was just getting up at 7, after 8 hours sleep. I’d have breakfast, shower and dress, walk a block to catch a school bus, and be at school at least 10 minutes before it began at 8:45. And I remember still being a little sleepy through most of 1st period.
These kids must be getting out of bed by 6:30, maybe earlier. No wonder they look like they’re sleepwalking. I wonder how much sleep they’re actually getting. So I’ve done some research on kids, sleep, and school.
I read where experts who study such things have found children, especially teenagers, and unlike adults, have difficulty falling asleep before 11pm because of their circadian rhythms (the physical, mental and behavioral changes responding to light and darkness, that are genetic and governed by the brain’s biological internal clock that governs sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other functions.) And that means, if they’re getting up 6-6:30, they’re getting about 7 hours sleep, well under the 10-11 hours recommend for 7-12 year-olds and the 8-9 hours for 12-18. Which means, in order to get the sleep they need to physically and mentally function at school, they need to sleep-in until at least 8am. Which means, school shouldn’t start until 9-9:30am, and thus, end 3:30-4pm instead of 2:30.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been saying this for years. No one has paid them any attention. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling sleep deprivation in children a public health concern. Will this added alert make any difference? Not likely.
Whenever and wherever this issue is raised, parents (who need to get their kids to school before they have to be at work), teachers (who want to be home when their kids get home from their school), kids (who need after-school mid-afternoons for sports and club activities) all bristle at any suggestion of starting school later in the morning.
But what they are overlooking is, what is the purpose of schools? Schools exist first to educate youth and prepare them for higher education and jobs, to be productive citizens. Having students unable to function effectively because of lack of sleep is just plain stupid. Not adjusting school starting times by an hour or so later in the morning – just because it inconveniences adults – is dumb. And as to after-school clubs or sports practices – move them to before school (it might serve to further wake them up, as well), which would also get them home at about the same time they do if such activities are after school like they are now.
Why should you or I care? Because these kids will eventually become adults. We need them to have the best jobs possible, to contribute to the economy, to pay the taxes necessary to rebuild our infrastructure and to prop up Social Security and Medicare. And to support themselves.
And they can only do it if they’re awake enough to learn.