Note: This was published a few weeks ago but at a hectic time (e.g., SC race, overrides), so I didn't post it then. But a number of blog readers brought this to my attention -- and here it is!
Monday, March 8, 2010
NORTHAMPTON - If you knew there was one thing you could do that would help your children be happier, healthier, safer and do better in school, would you do it? What if it were a challenge to arrange?
This tension is at the crux of the debate about school start times in Northampton.
A wealth of scientific information about sleep clearly demonstrates how important sleep is to children's brain development. In their 2009 book "Nurtureshock," Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman summarize studies that show the major impact that losing even one hour of sleep can have on children's academic performance, memory, mood, safety and health. These findings have led many school systems to move back their high school start times to increase teenagers' sleep and improve their health and safety.
Now, less than 5 percent of American adolescents get eight hours of sleep on weeknights and 50 percent get less than seven hours sleep.
"In general, children - from elementary school through high school - get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago," write Bronson and Merryman.
Why is this a problem? Because we now understand that kids' brains are doing critical work during sleep. Loss of sleep has "an exponential impact on children that it simply doesn't on adults."
Recent MRI brain studies show that sleep loss seriously affects a child's ability to consolidate and store learning from the previous day. In addition, loss of sleep disrupts the prefrontal cortex, the site of executive functioning - which controls impulse control, planning and abstract reasoning skills. Thus, loss of sleep translates into lower academic performance, standardized test scores and IQ scores.
A study of fourth- and sixth-graders in Israel showed that one hour's sleep difference created a two-year gap in achievement scores. Many studies show correlation between sleep and grades. One found that students who got A's averaged 15 minutes more sleep than students who received B's, who averaged 15 minutes more sleep than students who averaged C's (and so on).
Researchers have also found a strong link between sleep loss and negative mood. One such study found that as sleep decreased each year of high school so did mood, and students getting fewer than eight hours of sleep had double the risk of a clinical level of depression. Quality of life and psychological health can improve with increased sleep.
A crucial point for many school systems, and ultimately for the Centers for Disease Control, is the issue of safety. We now know that in adolescence melatonin, the brain's natural sleep chemical, is released later in the evening and into the morning hours - unlike in children and adult brains. This difference leads to sleepiness in the morning, which correlates with driving accidents.
Districts that have changed start times have reported significant drops in teenage car accidents Lexington, Ky., reported a 25 percent drop. This finding ultimately led the CDC to recommend moving high school start times later because it can save lives.
Finally, new research points to the important role sleep plays in regulating hunger and eating behaviors. Brain research conducted by Dr. Eve Van Cauter demonstrates a complex neuroendocrine cascade that links obesity with sleep loss. Studies around the globe have found with remarkable consistency that children who got fewer than eight hours sleep have a 300 percent higher risk for obesity than those who got 10 hours sleep per night. A U.S. study showed that obesity rates increased 80 percent for every hour of sleep lost.
With this level of scientific backing, clearly the best decision for our children's health and education is to move the start time of the high school back to 8:30 or later (from its current time of 7:30). Unfortunately, in the current economic climate of recurring budget crises, issues of innovation and science-based change can get sidelined. We need to work together to solve the logistical problems in a creative and thrifty way.
A group of parents and citizens met Feb. 3 to discuss this issue. We brainstormed options that in combination might solve the core obstacle: transportation. If the start time were later, perhaps we could make use of the city bus system, and also use smaller buses that could be run for less money. Or it may be more cost effective to use a model in which smaller "feeder" buses bring students to central locations for larger buses.
The School Committee is planning to sponsor an open forum March 15 on transportation issues. Come and offer your ideas to make sure transportation problems don't stand in the way of a change that is a win-win choice.
We appreciate how beleaguered the School Committee and administrators have been because of repeated budget crises. We are interested in working together for the education and well-being of our students. The bottom line is, when we have overwhelming data that says this is best for all children, we can't respond, "But it's too difficult."
We have to respond, "OK, how can we do this soon?"
Karen W. Saakvitne is a clinical psychologist in Northampton and a parent of two middle school students. Carin Clevidence is a writer and a parent of a third- and fifth-grader. Renee Wetstein is an attorney and a mother of three sons in sixth, eighth and tenth grade.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.