The idea that rising with the sun is a good idea is well-entrenched.
“The early bird catches the worm.”
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
And so on.
Such advice is dispiriting to people like yours truly, who find rising early a sluggish disadvantage. Memory tells me I spent most of my high school days in a daze until at least noon.
So I was cheered several years ago when a sleep expert told me that a sleep pattern is an individual thing, and that the task was to find a vocation that best suited your optimal sleep schedule.
Not all that long ago, I visited a high school classroom to give a talk about opinion writing. In order to do so, I had to rise earlier than usual and my mental state was, shall we say, cloudy. But I was alert enough to notice that just about everyone else seemed very sleepy, and considered suggesting that we all break for a nap. But this did not seem suitable, so I pressed on.
The idea that attempting to instill learning into crowds of sleepy young people might not be the best approach is starting to catch on. There are committees in West Hartford and Simsbury, for example, that are taking a look at changing the time school starts.
In general, the connection between sleep and well-being still needs some work, though there have been advances in recent decades. Hospitals now offer sleep services.
Years ago, I spent a night in a sleep lab. My results were not encouraging, though I think they tried to make me go to bed too early.
In any case, a neuroscience professor at Trinity College recently told The Hartford Courant that adolescent brains “are just not capable of falling asleep before 11 o’clock at night.”
That makes it a challenge to be at the bus stop at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m., said Sarah Raskin, “and ready to do calculus or physics or whatever else we expect them to do at 7:30 in the morning.”
There are obstacles to shifting school schedules.
Transportation, for one, and perhaps more significantly the impact on after-school activities, including sports. Parents and their work schedules are also a factor.
The town of Wilton reports success with what seems like a modest change, implemented 15 years ago, of shifting the start times for middle schools and high schools from 7:35 a.m. to 8:15 a.m., and ending the school day at 2:50 p.m. instead of 2:10 p.m.
Were we all farmers it might be a different story. What’s clear is that optimal sleep is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
What’s also clear is that sleep deprivation is a serious health issue. It’s been linked to disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
Raskin listed lower academic performance, motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries, among others.
Then there’s this little headline I ran into on WebMD:
“Sleep loss dumbs you down.”
More school systems should consider making changes. If the goal is education, giving students a chance to think clearly is an essential step.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @jefferykurz.