Changing start times is not a magic solution to all teen issues. But it will increase the amount of sleep teens get. And more sleep is a prerequisite for other interventions to be effective.
For example, one initiative that New Canaan is implementing is Emotional Intelligence programming. At a presentation on Emotional Intelligence in New Canaan in October 2018, Marc Brackett showed the slide above. The top 3 words that teens use to describe how they feel are “tired”, “stressed” and “bored”. Brackett remarked that self-care, including adequate sleep, has to be the starting point of any attempt to be more emotionally intelligent or to reduce these negative feelings and increase positive ones.
Just as it is counter-productive to send a sleep-deprived child to school, because sleep is so profoundly linked to learning, it is also irrational to expect a sleep-deprived teen to act in an emotionally intelligent manner or to be resilient in the face of stressors. Parents accept this when their children are young -there is little to be done about a tired child’s demeanor or behavior except to get them to sleep. It is the same for our older children, who still need a lot more sleep than adults - at least 8.5-9.5 hours a night. Why should parents accept a school system that deprives our children of this basic need while at the same time demanding that they perform with excellence?
In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, PhD writes, “REM sleep increases our ability to recognize and therefore successfully navigate the kaleidoscope of socioemotional signals that are abundant in human culture…The coolheaded ability to regulate our emotions each day - a key to what we call emotional IQ - depends on getting sufficient REM sleep night after night.” (p. 74)
Worse yet, a large chunk of REM sleep occurs in the early morning hours. Waking our children early in the morning to sit bleary-eyed in a classroom when their bodies and brains want to be asleep robs them of a disproportionate amount of REM sleep. Waking two hours too early may result in a 25% reduction in total sleep, but they may lose 60-90% of their REM sleep.
Now that we know that our teens cannot be the best versions of themselves without adequate sleep, why wouldn’t we make a change?
In addition to the Emotional Intelligence program, the district is evaluating other changes that, along with more sleep, can help our teens thrive with less negative stress. These include evaluating homework loads, school day schedule changes and other wellness initiatives.
These are all good things to do. But without the additional sleep that they all need, all of these interventions will still result in teens who are “tired”, operating on a less than optimal level, day in and day out.