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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/30/2010

The surprising thing teachers want from parents -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
To mark the new school year, I asked a dozen teachers this question: “If you could magically make parents do ONE thing this coming school year to support their child, what would it be?”

The most frequent answer (by far) was “make sure that kids come to school having had a good night of sleep.”

I was a bit surprised that there was such agreement. Then I checked the research literature on the consequences of sleep deprivation and got a sense of what teachers see when a child hasn’t had enough sleep.

In adolescents, poor sleep quality is associated with depression, anxiety, inattention, conduct problems, drug and alcohol abuse and impaired cognitive function.

Now those findings are correlational, meaning that it’s perfectly plausible that poor sleep is the result of these other problems, rather than the cause.

To get at cause and effect, you would have to conduct an experiment in which you deprive people of sleep and observe the results. Those studies are rarely conducted in adolescents for ethical reasons. (There are special protections for research on children, and other groups considered “vulnerable.” )

But other data from adults support the conclusion that not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep impacts cognitive function. It’s harder to pay attention, and memory is affected.

These effects are especially observed during low-stimulation activities. In other words, a sleepy child might rally and stay engaged during a chemistry laboratory when he has something he must do moment to moment, but his attention may easily drift during a whole-class discussion.

It’s also likely that poor sleep affects emotional regulation. Kids who are sleep-deprived may more easily act silly in mildly humorous situations, or cry in mildly frustrating situations.

How widespread is sleep deprivation among kids? Estimates are that as many as 25% of adolescents don’t get enough sleep.

Researchers have verified the pattern that most parents have observed: sleep patterns change at puberty, and kids can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning. But they still stay up late at night.

Researchers also note that the problem seems to have gotten worse in the last ten years or so, simply because there is more for kids to do at night than their used to be, notably, chatting with friends on the Internet.

So there it is, parents. Teachers have given you your marching orders for how to support your child in school this year. Sleep is not optional.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 30, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Parents, Science, Teachers  | Tags:  daniel willingham, how many hours should kids sleep?, parent involvement, sleep and teens, students and sleep, teenagers and sleep  
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Next: Surviving back-to-school night


If teachers are requesting that parents ensure that their children get sufficient sleep, parents request of teachers, particularly high school teachers, (particularly high school AP teachers), coordinate with each other to the extent possible, and assign reasonable, targeted homework that does not require students to do homework until late into the night.

Posted by: pmishima | August 30, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps if parents replace kids computers and TVs with books in their bedrooms, they'd stop pretending to go to sleep and actually would go to sleep. pmishima - how about you get your kid to start HW after school instead of after dinner and the millions of other activities the kid probably has lined up. If your child can't hack the workload for an AP class, how are they to survive college?

Posted by: Care1 | August 30, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

It should be no surprise that teachers #1 want parents to help kids get to sleep.

"Fatigue makes cowards of as all," is as true today's as in Vince Lombardi's time. We should start with the easier challenge and move high school starting times back. Almost all of my high school students over age 15 are working more than 30 hours a week. Worse, they get home to a home where a single mom is still at work or is in bed for her job, needing to work more hours for lower real wages. A huge part of the problem is due to depression and other chronic ailments in a world without a viable health insurance system. That is one of many reasons why kids have to work too much.

But the opposite explains why kids want to work too much. They get more respect on their jobs than in school with the chronic disorder, nonstop test prep, and the narrowed curriculum. Teens seek meaning, value, and relationships. That leads to another reason why kids abuse cell phones and other digital technology. That being said, schools and parents should have done a much better job of teaching delayed gratification, self-control, and controlling their cell phone etc.

And when kids get home at midnight, with a sleeping or working parent to not interfere, they are most likely to stay up later seeking cell phone and Facebook relationships for meaning they don't get at school. Then often they have to help their brothers, sisters, and others get to school next morning.

Posted by: johnt4853 | August 30, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

No mention of the research that shows that schools should open later for high school students and that certain schools are recognizing this by opening up later.

The reality is that so much of the norm of public schools may have nothing to do with learning but are simply carry overs from another era.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 30, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

So there it is, parents. Teachers have given you your marching orders for how to support your child in school this year. Sleep is not optional.
Do your job parents.

Bring your child into school at 9:30 a.m. so that they have enough sleep.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 30, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

This one is fun,

Harv Bus Rev. 2006 Oct;84(10):53-9, 148.
Sleep deficit: the performance killer. A conversation with Harvard Medical School Professor Charles A. Czeisler.
Czeisler CA.
Harvard Medical School, USA.

A highlight:
"We now know that 24 hours without sleep or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%. We would never say, 'This person is a great worker! He's drunk all the time!' yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep for work."

Substitute "diligent student" for "great worker" and it paints a picture of many of our high performing students.

Posted by: shadwell1 | August 30, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

No, bsallamack, just be a parent and make sure they go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Posted by: Widebody1 | August 30, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

It's not quite as simple as "start school later." Some parents object because they need to leave for work and starting school later disrupts their schedule. Some parents don't like the idea of the school day running later because they worry that it will cut into extracurricular activity time. Sometimes districts have difficult getting the bus schedules right. I know, I know, this stuff should come second to students being alert in class. . .I'm sympathetic to the idea, I'm just pointing out that the perfectly obvious idea of later start times for high school hasn't gotten traction in some places.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | August 30, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse


I still think the later starting time would be cost effective, but yes it would be a ton of work. Its similar to the idea of letting choice be the default for all parents in selecting schools, and then working out the amazingly difficult logistics. It would cost 100s of millions of dollars, but as in the case of the later starting time that should be compared to the billions we're gambling on equally untested innovations that are less likely to work.

But I hope I made it clear the sleep deprivation, like everything in education, is a seamless web, and it involves a range of cultural, economic, and technological issues. There's a limit as to how far schools can get ahead of society.

Posted by: johnt4853 | August 30, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Twelve is an awfully suspect sample size.

I'm a teacher, and that wouldn't hit the first dozen things I might ask of parents.

I do agree with a later starting time, but that's a different story.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | August 30, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

If teachers and administrators want rested teens in their classes, maybe they should adjust the schedules so that High Schoolers start latest -- like 9AM. How can teens, whose very biological clock gears them to stay up late and sleep in, be expected to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 7:25 in the morning!?!
I'm going through this right now with my teen and well remember my own travails with getting up and getting awake for an early school day. And over the years, the schedules have only gotten earlier and earlier.

Posted by: nadie1 | August 31, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

School starts at 7:15 a.m. Bus leaves bus stop at 6:25. It is a 10 minute walk to bus stop. So, my son has to get up by 5:30 in the morning.

A 15 year old boy should get 9 hours of sleep a night. Therefore he needs to be in bed by 8:30 at night in order to get sufficient sleep to meet his needs.

Even if we were willing to do this the best medical research shows that adolescents bodies and neurological systems are simply not programmed to operate this way.

So why do we do this? To accomodate parents scheduling needs, to lower transportation costs, to accomodate the football coach, and to honor "tradition" (without ever questioning why this "tradition started").

We've become a model of poor decision making.

Posted by: baseballguy | August 31, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

How about this: the schools start at a reasonable time--let's say, any time after 8 AM. The teachers don't assign a ridiculous amount of homework. And I won't sign my kid up for a ridiculous number of activities (or expect him to be my free after-school babysitter) and I'll turn off the internet router at 10 PM. Deal?

Posted by: kbmidura | August 31, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

So if we are going to start high schools later (a good idea) we either hire more bus drivers & buy more buses (raise taxes or make cuts in other places) or have the elementary school kids either walking or waiting at the bus stop before sunrise during winter. Your choice

Posted by: Oakton59 | August 31, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Easy! Fire a few useless (fed, state and county) Dept. of Education administrators to pay for it.
Easy that is but for the all-powerful public sector employee unions that wouldn't stand for it.

Posted by: nadie1 | August 31, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I went to a high school that started at 9:30 am, Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, MD. There were a bunch of reasons for this. It is a science and technology magnet high school combined with a regular comprehensive high school. It was the first magnet high school of its type in MD and in Prince George's County and drew students from all over the county, so needed to start late to accommodate the long commutes for those from the southern part of the county (Oxon Hill was later created in Southern PG to alleviate the transportation problems).

It was fantastic. My friends who attended the neighborhood assigned high school had to be at the bus stop by 7, and I was asleep until 8:15 or 8:30. No morning fighting to wake up. And I was in a rigorous magnet program, took AP, and very involved in student government. It can be done!

I later worked there for a short time and appreciated that the students were not sleep deprived. Of course, a move to more neighborhood high schools could also support later start times, as transportation becomes less of an issue. I especially do not understand why this does not happen in places like NY and DC where they do not rely on a huge amount of busing of HS students, but let public transportation take the load.

Posted by: kdking19 | August 31, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps if parents replace kids computers and TVs with books in their bedrooms, they'd stop pretending to go to sleep and actually would go to sleep.
Posted by: Care1 | August 30, 2010 1:31 PM

Obviously, you and I have children who are *very* different. At our house, all electronics "screens" are off at dinner time, and don't get turned back on. But the boys are allowed to read as much as they want. When DH and I go to bed, we always have to check, and at least a couple of times a week remind them to turn off the flashlights, put down the books, and go to sleep.

Too bad not all kids are serious bookworms like we have in our family. But we still face the challenge of getting our bookworms to sleep at a reasonable hour.

Posted by: SueMc | August 31, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Widebody1: Are you able to go to sleep at 4:00 p.m. and get up at midnight after 8 hours sleep? Or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.?

All my life, even long before I started school, I remember tossing in bed, making up games in my head, worrying about the things little kids worry about, and being wide awake. Finally, when I was out of college, my mother and I took a trip that kept us up until 2:00 a.m. She was so sleepy she was staggering, and I managed all the details because I was wide awake and full of energy. She finally admitted then that I simply operated on a different biological schedule than she did.

Besides, add up the amount of time a high-school student spends in school, the amount he is expected to study per class hour (is it still 2 hours studying per hour of class?), the amount of time necessary for eating, bathing, etc. Then factor in the extracurricular activities the schools have convinced the students are necessary for college. Then add the 8 to 10 hours of sleep teenagers are said to need--in most cases you get more than 24 hours.

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Posted by: ssdfknwefo | August 31, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

It is difficult to pinpoint one cause for teenagers sleep deprivation issues, but to those who think the quantity of homework teachers assign is the cause, I offer this for your consideration.

I watch my students (and my own children) study or do homework by multitasking all the while. Texting, holding several IM conversations simultaneously, while doing homework certainly can't be the most efficient way of completing homework. I wonder how much time on homework might be saved if all of these distractions were eliminated?

To those who say that our teenagers learn differently than we did 20 years ago I ask this: How has the performance of the American teenager compared to their counterparts around the world in the last 20 years?

It is complicated, isn't it? I'm glad I'm an old geezer sometimes.

Posted by: Cfhoag | August 31, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

A poster said that it would cost "millions of dollars" to implement a change in start times. Not necessarily; last year Fairfax Co.PS made some busing changes that resulted in a 1/2 hour or so later start time for some middle school students AND saved $$. As the poster noted it takes planning, but the benefits (healthy and alert kids ready to learn)are well worth it. AsBASEBALL GUY says:
"We've become a model of poor decision making." We CAN do better.

Posted by: harmony24 | September 1, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

One more thing: a poster stated that it's an either/or proposition: either teens or younger kids waiting for the bus in the dark. No one is in favor of any of our students up that early for a bus. Bus schedules can be arranged to ensure safe and healthy times for all students--and without spending more $$ for more buses. Again, it takes planning and willingness to put students before bureaucratic convenience.

Posted by: harmony24 | September 1, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

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