You could tell by all of the smiling and energetic volunteers at Robinson Secondary School on Sept. 19 that SLEEP's campaign to start high schools later has gained momentum. This is the first year we have had the teachers supporting us at Back to School Nights, as well as the many other new volunteers who brought information to their own schools.
People in Fairfax care about teenagers, and want to provide a healthy and appropriate environment for them. The research is clear (and growing), and demonstrates the importance of setting schedules to better meet the needs of our students. We want to protect our children’s opportunity to sleep, because we know it is essential to growth, brain development, learning, safety, health and wellness.
September is always a challenge for busy families, and the transition back to school is all the more challenging for families facing the exceedingly early rise times for secondary school students. Instead of talking about the enriching possibilities presented by our high school curriculum, our 9th grade families are talking about how tired they are and how hard it is to drag their children out of bed. For some in Fairfax, this transition to a 7:20 start time occurs in 7th grade.
Waking adolescents at 5:00 or 6:00 AM isn’t just difficult, it may actually be harmful. Sleep experts have likened it to shift work for an adult and suggested that adults imagine how it would feel to have to wake up at 3:00 AM every day and then contemplate solving Calculus problems or discussing Shakespeare.
Multiple studies show that students in schools with later morning schedules sleep longer. The students don’t stay up later. That is a myth. The additional sleep changes the equation and students no longer struggle to stay awake during class or while completing homework because they feel awake and alert. Sleep is critical to learning, creativity, and problem-solving.
I asked some SLEEP volunteers what motivates them to seek a school schedule that allows students to get a healthy and sufficient amount of sleep. Here’s what they had to say:
Steve Greenburg, President of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT), “FCFT cares about our students, their parents, and our community. We recognize that later high school start times are educationally sound and we want what’s best for children. Plus, when children are well-rested, it helps teachers in the classroom.”
Liz Spoto, Elementary school parent, “I firmly believe that we have the potential to be our best selves when we’re well-rested and well-fed. We think better. We have more energy for sports and activities. And most important, we’re kinder, better people. I want to ENJOY my children when they’re teenagers, not ENDURE them as they muddle through life, exhausted, stressed and irritable. Some may say that all those things come with being a teenager. I say they come from being an exhausted teenager. I believe that changing the bell schedule is one of the most important things we can focus on right now to nurture our families and provide the foundation for our children that they deserve.”
Michele Menapace, Hayfield Secondary School, “I initially got involved to have an impact on my kids' health, well-being, academics and overall attitude. I really hated seeing the dead-tired eyes and daily couch-napping that came with the shift from elementary school to secondary school. I have remained a volunteer because of a bigger need to help us, as a community, understand and appreciate sleep as vital to our health. Since I became a SLEEP volunteer I, myself, have learned how much sleep and sleep deprivation impacts our eating, weight, concentration, memory retention, emotions and self-control, and so much more. This isn't just about my own children any more. SLEEP volunteering means I'm contributing to our community well-being. Thanks, SLEEP for leading me on this rewarding journey.”
Laurie Lindberg, Annandale High School, “I volunteer for SLEEP because as a parent, it's my job to make sure my children are healthy, happy, and able to achieve to their fullest potential. I realized that the sleep deprivation caused by the early high school start times was detrimental to them in many ways. Sleep is as important to a growing child as proper nutrition and exercise. We as a society need to wake up to the importance of sleep for health!”
Mike Paulson, Marshall High School, “It was obvious from observing my own children, that the current school start times were not chosen with the children in mind (nor the parents). I became an advocate of SLEEP before SLEEP existed, when my children were in primary school, because, while they were up early, their school started too late for me to get to work on time. When they moved to secondary and high school, it was equally obvious that those schools started too early for my kids, who loved to stay up late. Sleeping in class is not a good way to get an education.”
Tom Van Wazer, McLean High School, “I became active in SLEEP after watching my older son suffer through two years of sleep-deprived misery in Longfellow middle school. It was exceedingly painful to watch as the 7:25 start time gradually robbed him of most of the joy in his life. His school work suffered, his athletic performance regressed, he stopped practicing the cello. He was so sleep-deprived that we stopped waking him up for Sunday school because we felt like he was already subject to cruel and unusual punishment during the week.
During these two years, it became crystal clear to me that his problems were physiological. His body was programmed to get tired later and to sleep later in the morning.
These problems weren't due to some character defect where he just didn't go to sleep early enough. Believe me we tried.
I became active in SLEEP during these two frustrating and painful years. I felt like I owed it to my son and all the kids like him to get start times changed.”
Caroline Hemenway, South Lakes, “I volunteered so we could change one of the most unhealthy school policies I've ever encountered, one based on zero science, and one that borders on child abuse. I began to see deleterious effects of upside-down school start times on my three kids as early as first grade, when their school started at 9:15 am. They were exhausted at the end of the day, we were paying for before-school care that was lost peak learning time, and we had virtually no time for after school play or activities before dinner. In middle and high school it got far worse. All three of our kids were constantly sleep-deprived. No, they did not hang out on electronic devices to the wee hours. They were not "wasting time" and we were not "bad parents" who couldn't get them to bed on time. People who made such accusations have missed the conclusion of multiple scientific studies: Adequate sleep is not just getting enough sleep, but also sleeping at the right time. The too-early start times cut the students' natural sleep cycle short. As a result, our kids were just plain tired and edgy all the time during the school year. All three are considered gifted, but they consistently had to re-learn material they couldn't retain. The difference in their personalities on long weekends or school breaks was stunning. They remained as engaged and bright as ever, but were happy and positive, and so were we. No adult is required by law to be 100% alert for eight hours on too little sleep, then take 2-4 hours of work home every day and pass constant tests to prove their worth. In any rational society, this would be abusive. We do this to our kids, and I want it to stop.”
Lisa Ross, Woodson parent, "FCPS school start times are causing at least 2,000 county pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD to be sleep-deprived by making it impossible for them to obtain the 9+ hours of sleep their bodies require, which exacerbates their attention issues; can cause mood problems and depression, which affects academic performance, and decreases the effects of stimulant medications on their ability to focus, attend to instruction, or perform academically as well as they could if they were allowed the proper amount of sleep for their age."
Adam Greer, parent of elementary school students and Centreville graduates, “You have to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything.”
If you are inspired by these volunteers and wish to join our efforts, please let me know. This is truly a grassroots effort and we welcome your help.