The Homeroom column of two weeks ago (Sept. 16) generated a lot of mail about the difficulty high school students have in fitting in all their activities.
As a high school student who actually lives through the average high school day five days a week, I can say that I and most of my friends do not get enough sleep.
Most nights I get about six to seven hours of sleep, while I have friends who, at least once a week, get less than four hours of sleep. Between waking up at 6 and getting ready for school, being in classes for seven hours, extracurricular activities, and homework, there isn't much time for sleep on most days. Especially if I want to have a little bit of a rest break and read a comic book or watch a half-hour of TV.
I've given this a lot of thought and found that there really isn't a feasible solution to it. If we start school an hour or more later, students will just end up going to bed an hour or more later.
The only solution I can come up with is to drop a period from our school day. Of course, this will never happen because parents would think it's like taking a blowtorch to our education. But I wouldn't miss the [physical education] or the guitar class--what we here in high school call "fluff." Every year, I've had one class that was unnecessary, a class that I registered for because it didn't have any homework attached to it. (I get enough homework from my English class, my AP physics class and my AP calculus class to last me for two or three or four hours, I don't need any more.)
If one period of the day were dropped, then there would be one extra hour of sleep for students. I for one could use it.
In principle, I agree that getting kids to bed earlier (and consistently so) is part of the way to cope with the early start time. As a teen, I went to a high school in Texas that went from 9 to 4. Most clubs met before school, so sometimes we left the house as "early" as 7:30 am. I never remember being sleepy in class. But we did have a strict bedtime. Academics were very important in my family (my dad was a college professor), but everyone was in bed by 10 p.m. (no more homework, only light reading permitted!).
My eighth-grader gets ready for bed at 9 p.m. He is my "morning kid," that is, he can get himself up in the morning with minimum agony no matter what time. But even though in bed, he describes being unable to get to sleep until 10:30 or 11 p.m.
This year, he describes having trouble staying awake and paying attention in his first-period class and I expect this will only worsen as he heads into high school. He is my own "case study" at this point. But it will be interesting to see how hard he has to work to keep his grades up in those first few classes of the day.
We now know that teenagers need 9-10 hours of sleep per night on average--no less than younger children, and more than most adults. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the deleterious effects of teenage sleep deprivation extend far beyond low grades and school performance. These include: increased risk of unintentional injuries and death, especially through traffic accidents; negative moods; difficulty in controlling emotions, such as aggression; behavioral problems that mimic attention deficit hyperactivity disorders; and increased likelihood of using stimulants and alcohol.
As parents, we can and should be more responsible in enforcing bedtimes.
But no amount of parental involvement can result in teens going to bed between 9-9:30 p.m., which they would have to do in order to log in the requisite hours of sleep and start the school day at 7:25 a.m. The major nonnegotiable barrier to our teens getting more sleep is high school starting time.
For those students and teachers who think this is an interesting issue, let me suggest getting involved by doing some original research.
One wonderful opportunity for seeing whether gaining an hour in the morning makes a difference to high school students is when daylight saving time ends in October.
Select a first-period class and do a detailed survey a few days before and after Oct. 30 of bedtimes, sleep times, awakening times, after-school activities (homework, jobs, sports, clubs, computer games, television, etc.), caffeine consumption, ease or difficulty in awakening and in-class drowsiness during the course of a school day. If the students allow it, collect their quiz or test scores from both weeks. If you're really ambitious, hook up with students and teachers in other schools to design the study and correlate results.
Students can then present findings at their schools' science fairs and, if they do a good enough job, the Montgomery County Science Fair.
To make sure I wasn't way off base in this suggestion, I asked one of the leading sleep researchers in the country, Mary Carskadon, of Brown University, what she thought. Her response was that the "idea is great."
She suggested using the Karolinska Sleepiness Scale and offered to send it to me. If you can't find it, let me know.
When Job, School Conflict
I think the parent who wrote in is reasonable in listing all the messages society sends students and parents as to what kids need to do to lead productive and successful lives--except that she left out the fact that many young people choose or need to have paying jobs in addition to the other demands on their time.
Annlinn Kruger Grossman
This issue of high school students working has been the focus of a fair amount of study and debate lately. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley recently gave a speech in which he addressed that very issue. It was in the context of calling for high schools to ensure that all students learn and achieve more by taking "tough core courses" of college preparatory classes.
He then added this:
"Now, all this push to get young people to learn more is going to provoke the question: When are they going to have time to do it? Between sports, the band, or other extracurricular activities, between work, going to school and just hanging out, something has to give. Let me suggest the answer. We need to stop letting teenagers work more than 20 hours a week during the school year.
"Helping young people develop a work ethic is an important part of growing up. The research, however, is quite clear. Students who work too much put earnings over learning and are too tired to study. Parents need to set limits on how much time young people spend working."
You can read the full speech at www.ed.gov/Speeches/09-1999/990915.html. (By the way, in the speech, Riley also calls for high schools to be dramatically smaller, which relates to another discussion we have had in this column.)
Riley's point that we need to focus on exactly what teenagers need to do in order to learn at high levels is dead on.
And if working--or anything else, for that matter--interferes with the serious business of learning, it should be jettisoned. That doesn't mean that working a few hours on the weekend is a bad idea. But too many teenagers are working far too many hours during the school week, and the effect on their learning could cost them far more than any money they are making.
Before I close, I need to clear up a couple of things about the letter that started all this discussion, from Jane Jacobs. She and I had corresponded back and forth, and in editing her letter for publication, I treated her three letters as one. As a result, I conflated a couple of ideas and may have created the impression that she was doing something other than lobbying for a later start time for high schools.
Her point, she says, is "that today's real-world demands on high school students usually result in late nights, that requiring teens to then wake at or before dawn doesn't promote productive days with healthy decision-making and that all the well-meaning stakeholders need to collaborate on a more balanced, creative solution."
Also, the actual start time for high schools is 7:25, not 7:35, as I--not she--mistakenly typed. My apologies.
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