I read an article in The Walrus about recent findings in neuroscience regarding adolescents. There was a lot of interesting information in it, but you had to wade through a lot of tenuous conclusions as well.
The thing that struck me was the fact that teenagers sleep patterns are radically different from those of children and adults. To quote a little bit:
“In fact, because they are waking up when the world dictates — rather than when their bodies tell them to — teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived, which can have consequences ranging from superficial to severe.”
These effects include an inability to concentrate at the time of day they are being required to do so. And low retention of what they are exposed to. The REM sleep at the end of their natural cycle, which is the sleep they are missing by being awakened by alarm clocks and/or parents, is crucial to processing information taken in the previous day. Another effect is increased risk of depression.
And what conclusion does the author draw?
“But it’s not easy to fight nature; perhaps the best parents can do is to encourage a slowdown of activity at a reasonable time in the evening, keep technology out of the bedroom and caffeine out of the fridge, and let their kids catch up on weekends.”
Pardon me? The problem with this article is its relentless focus on parents as the major influence in their teens lives and the only people who can act on the scientific evidence being presented. Catching up on the weekends might work to compensate for the occasional short period of overwork but it is not a solution to chronic sleep deprivation. It seems to me that if “it’s not easy to fight nature”, then we shouldn’t set up a school system that requires us to do so.
If this scientific research data is indicating that it is perfectly normal for adolescents to be more alert later in the day and to want/need to sleep from sometime after midnight for about 9 hours, then why aren’t our policy makers acting on that evidence. The main thing that the “world dictates” for teens is that they attend school. So maybe highschool should start at noon instead of 9 a.m. (or earlier).
And if adolescents need 9 hours of sleep per night perhaps we should stop treating them as if they should be sleeping less than toddlers and start making fewer demands on them. The amount of homework required of teens, added to sports and/or cultural activities (which are increasinly squeezed out of the school day), volunteer activities (increasingly mandated for high school graduation as a means of encouraging good citizenship), and paid work (increasingly necessary to pay for college tuition), makes it pretty difficult for teens to find 9 hours (any 9 hours) to sleep in.
Of course this would require serious social change. It would mean treating teens as fully human beings with needs that we should take seriously rather than a bunch of lazy so-and-sos who need to be squeezed into a mold. (I’m going to leave aside the question of whether adults should be squeezed into that mold either except to say that I don’t accept that as an argument in favour of doing it to teens.) It would also mean looking beyond the parents for solutions to the problems of adolescence.
Some of you are probably noticing that this suggests another big advantage for homeschooling, and I would agree. However, I have heard homeschoolers (either electronically or in person) talking about getting their kids into a routine of getting up early or making sure their kids don’t sleep all morning. I have also heard homeschoolers argue that teens need to step up the pace if they are going to get into, and succeed in, college.
While it is important to prepare our kids to live in the world, it behooves us to pay attention to the scientific research on adolescent brains. Given that we have the flexibility to “school” at whatever time of day suits us, we should consider the benefits of allowing teens to wake naturally even if this means nothing of substance happens before noon. It might be that the time spent after noon will be more efficiently used.
Also, in my experience and discussions with others it appears that adults have different rhythms. Some of us are most productive early in the morning; others mid-afternoon; others in the early evening. Helping our kids to find their own peak time for productivity might serve them better in the long-run than trying to force them into a rhythm that doesn’t suit them. We can also help them see that they will have to adapt that rhythm sometimes.