Vintage Thundercats lunchbox
A consistent sleep-wake routine that allows at least 9 hours in bed in a cool, dark room with a 1-hour buffer to get ready and eat breakfast before the bus arrives
If sleep isn’t on your back-to-school checklist, add it now. School-age children (ages 6-12) should be getting 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night, and teenagers (ages 13-18) should be getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night(1). Adolescents need more sleep than adults for a very good reason—they’re still growing. Many important hormones for growth are released primarily during sleep. Growth isn’t just about height either. School-age years are marked by changes to the brain and body that can affect physical and mental health decades down the road.
One challenge to imposing a healthy sleep routine for your kids is that teenagers are naturally disposed to go to bed and wake up later. Circadian scientists refer to a preference for mornings vs. evenings as a chronotype. You may have taken a quiz that tells you if you’re an owl or a lark, or a bear, dolphin, wolf, or lion, like this one from Rachel Ray: https://www.rachaelrayshow.com/articles/whats-your-chronotype-take-the-sleep-doctors-quiz . Chronotype is not like your horoscope though. Chronotype can change and does change predictably during adolescence. The same kid who woke up naturally every morning at 6 am when they were in second grade can be impossible to pull out of bed before noon as a teenager. It is normal for kids’ sleep patterns to change. In terms of healthy development, it is more important to have a consistent bedtime routine that allows enough time to actually sleep than to follow the “early-to-bed, early-to-rise” wisdom of Poor Richard’s Almanack. It’s true that technology, like video games or social media, is a bad influence on bedtime(2,3). However, this is true of parents as much as it is of kids(4). Honestly, we’d all benefit from turning off the screens as part of our nightly routine.
At odds with teenagers’ propensity for later chronotypes and their biological need for a lot of sleep is school start times. Data suggests that starting school no earlier than 8:30 AM would have beneficial effects on academic performance, school attendance and tardiness, student attitude and disciplinary issues, and even the risk of motor vehicle crashes1 (5,6). 8:30 may still seem early to a nearly-nocturnal teenager, but curbs the number of school days when kids would have to start their day before sunrise. Schools across the United States have begun to pursue policies to limit how early school can start, and there is a non-profit organization aptly called “Start School Later” (https://www.startschoollater.net/) that is devoted to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours. While the discussion on school start times is quite loud in the U.S.A., research from around the world suggests that later school start times would benefit students (5,7,8). Academic performance benefits from later school start times.
The relationship between schedules and performance is nothing new to the SAFTE-FAST enthusiast. In SAFTE-FAST, our primary performance indicator is Effectiveness, which is derived from response speed on a psychomotor task. Effectiveness maps onto the average individual’s ability to react to a simple stimulus, like being the first contestant on Jeopardy to hit the buzzer. Measuring academic performance, however, is much more complex, like answering a question correctly on Jeopardy. Researchers may use a previously-documented school metric like test scores or grade point averages (GPA) or administer their own tests, like a verbal memory test or a math quiz, to gauge students’ mental abilities. Academic performance should not be confused with intelligence. Despite every scientist on every tv show ever quoting you their exact IQ score like it was assigned at birth, intelligence is no more a static trait than is a chronotype. Intelligence is also multi-dimensional; not all of these dimensions fall within the course curriculum. Academic performance is just one metric of success that researchers (and parents) can use to gauge if the kids are all right. While arbitrary academic indicators may not seem applicable to life outside the classroom, sleep is necessary to encode information learned throughout the day into consolidated memory. Memory is very important to daily life, whether you’re studying for a test or making an executive decision about your work or lifestyle (9,10).
If you’re over 18, don’t have kids, and have stopped going to school, don’t think you’re in the clear. The things that make sleep important for academic performance make it important for work performance as well. There’s an old adage about the things you learn in school: “When will I ever need to know this in real life?” If you’re reading the SAFTE-FAST blog, it’s possible that you work in an industry related to transportation. In that case, not only can you appreciate the importance of sleep for reaction time and driving ability (11-14), but you probably use algebra quite frequently. As much as “two trains leave different stations at the same time…” has become the quintessential trope for useless math, drivers, pilots, and rail engineers actually do need to understand speed, distance, and rate of travel as part of their work.