High school students are overworked. Starting their day at 7:30 or earlier, they spend eight hours or more in the classroom, and attend one or two extra-curricular activities after class ends. After they leave campus, it’s a mad dash to eat dinner, shower, and try to get homework done. Students usually manage 1-2 hours of homework per night. Add in instrument practice if they are musical, and that’s a 12-to-14-hour day. Whew.
Because of this jam-packed schedule, many students work subsistence in more ways than one. They are running on empty when they do their homework, which often means they are operating on a just-in-time homework model, but the sleep quality and quantity is an even more alarming factor. Most students balk at the idea of getting more sleep in an effort to get more done. However, the idea of ‘sharpening the saw’ has plenty of merit.
Adequate rest ensures that your students maintain sanity while succeeding in school. I know, I know – “my kid has so many expectations placed on them and now they have to do sleeping right?” To keep up with the high demands of school and the world around them, good rest is imperative. A lumberjack should not attempt to chop down a mighty oak with a dull blade, and a student shouldn’t expect to tackle a grueling academic and extracurricular schedule without proper rest.
Rest isn’t just about sleeping. Students must factor in the total time they spend winding down for the night. As we allude to in our posts, The Danger of Always On and Boredom is Really Important, students need to balance stimuli with genuine stillness. Activities like evening routines, reading a good book after a long day, and finding a prep for tomorrow ritual are critical components of student success.
Let’s look at a common phenomenon. A student gets into bed, fully intending on sleeping within the next thirty minutes. Three hours later he or she is still staring at the ceiling. Bored beyond belief, the student turns to stimulus again and starts scrolling through Twitter. How did that happen again?
This is a common phenomenon, especially for busy, stressed students. A few things can happen to hijack sleep:
- Not allowing yourself to wind down. Distracting yourself rather than actually resting.
- Blue light before bedtime.
- Not enough exercise throughout the day.
- High Anxiety
- Not having an evening routine
Let’s examine those causes more closely.
Physically, emotionally and cognitively, students need time to unwind from the day before going to sleep. Students have a lot packed into their school day. It can be easy to continue running on adrenaline even when they get home. Then, add in some pressure like test anxiety, an intense conversation on why their room isn’t clean or homework isn’t done, and a big track meet. Congrats, you’ve got a recipe for lying awake at night, tossing and turning, and eventually giving in to social media or Netflix.
Remember these strategies and principles to help your student wind down for the night:
Limiting blue light
It’s easy to hit the hay, phone-in-hand for a few minutes (or hours) of unsupervised scrolling. That amount of sustained stimulation doesn’t allow your mind to turn off. The blue light from your phone inhibits melatonin production, preventing you from going to sleep. Placing your phone across the room or downstairs before bed will help you fall asleep faster.
We need some stress in our lives to function well as people. But academic pressures, extra-curriculars, and frustrations peculiar to developing minds strain students. It’s important that your child learns to manage stress with tactics unique to their needs. (I thrived with journaling, mindfulness and time management techniques). As a parent, modeling those behaviors for your child will give them the techniques to manage stress when it counts. Managing stress during the day will prevent them lying awake with anxiety at night.
While enrolling your child in sports is not strictly necessary, exercise has obvious benefits for your child’s health. One overlooked benefit of exercise is that it helps us sleep better. A simple walk after dinner or between homework assignments will help your student decompress and sleep more deeply. A word of advice: try to exercise no sooner than 1-2 hours before bedtime. The endorphins released from exercise and raised body temperature keep people awake.
Distraction vs. true rest
As I mentioned above, it’s a strong temptation to bring your phone to bed with you. The low-grade stimulation that surfing the web offers makes it addicting and hard to get to sleep. Doing anything that induces more of a dissociative state than a restful one results in difficulty falling asleep.
Humans, especially children, thrive on routines. It’s comforting to know that once you finish your homework, you can enjoy a nice cup of tea or something sweet, brush your teeth, and crawl into your blanketed bed with a good book, no matter how stressful the day was. I’ve found that having a set bedtime helps me better delineate work and rest. This ensures I get enough sleep most nights. However, Dr. Ratnasoma at the Sleep Medicine Center in Virginia points out that having a set wake up time can make your circadian rhythm more reliable.
Better sleep helps your child perform better in school, maintain good health and be a happier human being. For more ideas on how to help students stay happy and healthy, please check out our other posts or reach out about our academic coaching services, driven by the latest Executive Function research.