When the faculty returned from Spring Break, one of the topics we chose to cover was sleep and adolescents. All of us had some knowledge on the topic, and all of us welcomed the chance to confirm, revise, and expand our thinking by listening to and talking with Beth Grams Haxby, an expert in the field.
She began by talking about the science of sleep - how we cycle through four phases known as twilight sleep, light sleep (when brain waves slow down 50%), deep sleep (when all voluntary muscle activity ceases and growth hormones are released), and REM sleep (when breathing is shallow and the body paralyzed). Most of us get deep sleep in the first part of the night and REM sleep in the second part. And of course, the invention of the electric light has played havoc with our circadian rhythms and the release of adrenaline (which keeps us awake) and melatonin (which makes us sleepy).
During adolescence, kids tend to fall asleep later for biological, social, and developmental reasons. They also show an increased variability of sleep patterns, including much less deep sleep. They are more likely to be sleepy during the day time. Since sleep facilitates tissue growth and muscle repair, the brain sloughs off unwanted chemicals during sleep, neural connections are made and strengthened during sleep, and poor sleep is linked to depression, getting enough sleep is especially important for teenagers. Yet, on average, kids are sleeping two hours less a night than the ideal 8-10 hours.
What does Ms. Haxby recommend? She had more ideas than can be listed here, but for starters… Schools, she suggested, can look at starting times, examine homework quantity and patterns, make sure there’s a time in the day for individualized help, pay attention to the social-emotional side of learning, and help kids become more resilient. Parents, she suggested, can have conversations around sleep and make it a family priority. They can advocate for their children, create a homework zone, make space for down time, monitor caffeine, and support rather than pressure their kids. All of us can work to foster a growth mindset and to transfer the focus away from grades to interests, efforts, and discoveries.
I’ve long had a reputation for needing, or at least getting, relatively little sleep. There are a whole host of reasons for that, one being that I truly love my work, one being that I truly love my family, and another being that I truly love coffee. But with our discussion about sleep fresh in my mind, and the memory of a number of Seniors listing “get more sleep” as a goal for their last 100 nights, I found myself beginning to think that it was finally time to really change my ways. As I teach Rock Band in the evening and often can’t exercise until after that, it can be hard to get everything done by the 9:37-10:07 bedtime I would need to set to get a full night’s sleep by 5:37, when I need to wake up. And realistically, there are probably nights when I can’t avoid staying up late.
But a good night's sleep is something I can pull off much more of the time than I have been. And it matters deeply to me to be a healthy role model for my students. So maybe, I’ve decided, the time has really come to look hard at how I spend my days and make sleep a top priority without getting behind on my work or my exercise, or giving up conversation time with my family.
I’ve been doing okay. I’ve slipped for special occasions like attending conferences and watching Final Four basketball. But that aside, I’ve often been in bed by 10:00, 10:30 at the latest. And I do feel my mind is a little less sluggish and my spirits are a little more resilient than what I’m used to.
As a teacher, of course, simply being a role model isn’t enough. I also need to step up and talk with my students and with other teachers about our days, about work, about exercise, about play, about the genuine human need not just for sleep but also for down time. I think we as a school are well primed for this conversation, and I look forward to seeing where we go with it.
Meanwhile, though, I’ll keep working to make a decent night’s sleep a permanent habit.
The ball’s in your court, Seniors!