The 'Educational Wonder Drug' and how to get a free lifetime supply
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The Secret Ingredient
Well - here it is folks - not a pill or a potion - but 8-9 hours of decent quality sleep each night! Believe it or not, fewer than 15% of students surveyed across the globe are getting enough sleep and the results can be catastrophic on their physical and mental health as well as the progress they are able to make in school or college. Chronic sleep deprivation may well be the single greatest barrier to academic success and wellbeing. It doesn't matter how good a teacher is, if the student is struggling to keep their eyes open in class!
This issue is not, of course, restricted to teenagers. Most adults in our society are also sleep deprived but the fact that young people's brains are in a state of rapid restructuring and their biochemistry is in flux, means that teens are often more dramatically affected by poor sleep patterns.
For a start melatonin (a hormone responsible for sleep regulation) is released later in the evening for most teens, meaning that they don't feel sleepy until about 11 pm. They also need more sleep than adults - while there is some variation genetically, most students should be looking to get 8.5-9.5 hours a night to fully replenish themselves from the demands of the day. Unfortunately, the school day usually begins too soon and with the commute and breakfast to squeeze in, most students are torn from slumber by their alarm at least an hour or two too soon. The result is a gradual but unrelenting descent into chronic sleep debt. having a lie-in on the weekend and catching up during the school holidays can mitigate the rate of dysregulation to an extent, but even this is not enough to navigate the school year unscathed.
Teens also need to come to terms with a culture which seems hell-bent on doing whatever it can to disrupt their natural sleep patterns. Sleep hygiene 101 tells us that the ideal conditions for a good night's slumber include:
- A sustained routine
- A cool, quiet and uncluttered room with little or no light pollution
- Reduced stimulation (physically, emotionally and chemically) in the hours leading up to bedtime
Instead, students tend to be over-caffeinated, over-stimulated and exposed to blue-light screens (which confuse the brain's circadian rhythm - no longer knowing if it is day or night) until they collapse into fitful sleep. Their rooms are crammed with electronic devices and they climb into bed without properly preparing for the next day or setting that day's affairs in order. They are often tense, troubled and never really 'power down' before they have to drag themselves out of bed and do it all over again. No wonder we face a sleep crisis in schools and colleges.
The result? Clouded judgement, lack of focus and increased impulsivity. Sleep-deprived teens have been found to be more likely to make poor dietary choices, are less likely to get enough exercise and are more at risk for smoking, drug use, unprotected sex and violent behaviour. Suicidal thoughts and depression are also associated with poor sleep patterns.
This, of course, has a knock on effect to how our teens perform in class and during exams. Their memory is impaired because most consolidation of learning happens during deep, restorative sleep. They tend to be less creative, less capable of sustaining attention are more likely to have extreme swings of mood. Add to this the fact that they are more accident-prone, have weakened immune systems and are more self-destructive when sleep-deprived, and you can begin to get a sense of how worrying it is that things seem to be getting worse, year on year. Did I mention that many are also about to start driving lessons so they can throw tonnes of metal around our roads? Not a comforting thought, is it?!
So what is the answer? The solution will not be popular, but until a pill or potion really is available to override the effects of sleep debt, we need to focus on old-fashioned parenting, coupled with educating our sons and daughters.
8 Things You Can Do Today to Make a Difference
Here are 8 things you can do today to start to create the conditions that will turn the tide and win the war on sleep we are waging:
- Establish a clear routine with a set bedtime that ensures 8.5-9.5 hours of good quality sleep. Make this non-negotiable. We tend to think that sleep is a part of the day that we can flex our other activities around. It must become a protected part of lives.
- Build a Batcave - your sleeping environment is critical, so clear the clutter, install black-out blinds and reduce the electronic noise and light pollution in that space. A bedroom should be a sanctuary of sorts.
- Have a clear cut-off for all high-stimulation activities, and particularly for use of digital screens. Even if teens reduce blue-light exposure using 'Night Shift' and other apps, social media and online sites are still designed to amp-up rather than calm our minds. Instead, teens could enjoy a warm bath, chat or read...yes, with books made of paper. They still exist and there are plenty of other benefits to establishing a regular reading habit. I did say the solution might not be popular, didn't I?
- Consider having a 'kill switch' for wi-fi in the family home and a quarantine where mobile devices are charged overnight. With the best will in the world, digital addiction is a growing concern and teens may need help to execute on these changes before they come to appreciate the benefits of the off-button!
- Encourage teens to get organised for the next day's learning before turning in for the night. They should pack their bag, organise homework that is due in and get their uniform ready so that they don't have a 'to-do' list brain-itch while trying to nod off. A well-organised mind is a mind that can switch-off more easily.
- Encourage teens to take part in some vigorous exercise during the day, ideally at least 3 hours before going to bed. This expenditure of energy and the endorphins released during training can help the body to relax later in the day.
- Help young people to buy into these changes by presenting them with the information that proves how important good sleep hygiene is. Most teens have their internal radio dialled to WII.FM (What's In It For Me) - so show them why it makes sense to make sleep a priority so that they can 'become a sleep ninja'.
- Model good sleep hygiene yourself. If you have dark bags under your eyes and are nodding off in the evenings while staring at junk TV, why would your son or daughter bother taking on your advice? Make this a family lifestyle and see how transformative it can be.
So often schools are searching high and low for the next innovation that will allow them to 'add value' and raise standards. They dabble with the latest in educational technology, delivery methods and assessment models, all of which have their part to play. The truth is, however, that for most students, nothing would make as much of a difference as a decent night's sleep. So why not start tonight?
Andy Fisher is the creator of Tests of Life - an educational project designed to help students, parents and teachers navigate the 'hidden curriculum'. He is an English teacher and PSHE co-ordinator, based on the east coast of the UK and uses his blog, podcast and digital products to spread the word that schools should be preparing young people for the tests of life, and not just for a life of tests!