By Terri McLean
If the first hours of the school day seem like an episode out of The Walking Dead, there is good reason. Students – and maybe even their teachers and administrators – are not getting enough sleep.
“Everybody is tired,” Dr. Phillip W. Bale, a Glasgow family physician and former school board member, said during the Adolescent Sleep Deprivation and School Performance clinic session at the KSBA annual conference.
The problem is of particular concern for adolescents, those between puberty and ages 22 to 25, he said.
“Research has shown us that adolescents need nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep a night to function optimally,” Bale said, “and we're finding out pretty fast that isn't happening.”
PHOTO: Dr. Phillip Bale talks to an attendee after his presentation - he had several people waiting to talk to him afterward.
In fact, most middle and high school students get just over six hours of sleep – “a three-hour deficit every single night,” he said.
It should be no surprise, then, that classrooms are often occupied by “zombies” who not only find it more difficult to learn but also might be irritable, fatigued and depressed – classic symptoms of sleep deprivation.
Bale said it's been only in the past 20 to 30 years that scientists have come to understand the importance of sleep to learning. Previously, it was believed that the brain simply “turned off” during sleep. “But that could not be further from the truth.
“That is the time we replicate neurons, where memory consolidation happens … it's a critical time for learning,” he said.
So what's keeping adolescents awake? And what can school board members do about it?
A number of factors figure into the problem of adolescent sleep deprivation, Bale said, but “modern life” pretty much sums it up. Technology (including television, computers and cell phones), extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and homework can keep students awake well past midnight, while early bus schedules, school starting times and even athletic practices and other activities force them out of bed just a few hours later.
At the same time, the adolescent brain isn’t wired like the adult brain, Bale said. The longest periods of REM sleep – the most productive sleep time – occur at the end of their sleep cycle, after about the seventh to ninth hour of sleep. So if adolescents are getting only just over six hours of sleep, they're not getting the benefits of deep sleep.
“It doesn't take a genius to figure out that's a problem,” he said.
Bale stressed that sleep deprivation among adolescents is a community-wide problem that warrants educating parents and other stakeholders. But there are things that school board members and educators can do to facilitate finding solutions.
• They can read the wealth of research available on sleep deprivation. He recommended the work of James Maas, the author of Sleep for Success.
• They can incorporate sleep education into the middle and high school curricula. Bale himself developed and taught a program for eighth-graders in the Barren County school district.
• They can devise strategies to educate parents about sleep deprivation. “The parents don't know any more than the students,” he said.
• They can facilitate “meaningful discussion” about school start and end times, bus schedules and extracurricular activities.
And the payoff?
“Healthier, happier, academically and athletically improved students,” Bale concluded.
– McLean is a writer from Lexington