By Sarah Schwartz
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Volume 4 of “Think Differently and Deeply” (2020).
As a high schooler, I am constantly chasing sleep. In my role as a CTTL Student Research Fellow, I was asked to come to a meeting with teachers and talk about the research data we had collected on the school’s new schedule. Our discussion soon turned to the topic of Time by Design, a feature of our new schedule. On select Wednesdays, about half of the ones occurring during the school year, classes start an hour later and students have the option of coming to school to participate in activities or sleep in and come to school an hour later than usual. (1) Some teachers told me they didn’t understand giving kids this downtime if they didn’t take advantage by participating in the activities offered, and instead used the time to sleep in and come to school late. That is when I spoke up and shared something that I believe is my truth, and probably the truth of many high school students: I am chasing sleep.
Sleep is a priority, yet too often for me, and other sleep-deprived teens, it falls to the wayside in favor of the never-ending to-do list, an attempt to balance our lives, without much of a margin for error. A never-ending sleep loss, being less efficient, staying up later to make up for it, and losing more sleep, has made a sleep-deprived insomniac of too many teens. While sleeping in one day during the school week doesn’t necessarily make up for inadequate nights of sleep other days, it does promote, if not ensure, one night of healthy sleep. Teenagers’ brains need 9-10 hours of sleep a night to function properly, (2) yet few actually reach this mark due to their environment; the lack of sleep affects teens’ brains, academics, and lives, thus it is crucial to re-work our school day to create an environment in which students can sleep well and finish the race for sleep.
Listen to Sarah talk about how distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted her sleep in Episode 13 of the Think Differently and Deeply Podcast, recorded in Summer 2020.
Trying to balance school work, activities, sports, work, family, friends, self-care (genuine me-time), and the college application process means that searching for sleep gets lost in the process. During my sophomore year, my English teacher once asked my class what our ideal bedtime was. Expecting an absurdly late hour, he was surprised when I, along with the other sleep-deprived teens that filled my class, answered 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. It’s not that I don’t want to get a good night’s sleep – an early bedtime and 9 to 10 hours of sleep is my dream. It’s that as a high school student, to get everything done, my schedule is one of early mornings, late nights, and 6 or 7 hours of sleep — which would be a good night. Often the total is below that. According to researchers at NIH, “Not only is a good night’s sleep required to form new learning and memory pathways in the brain, but also sleep is necessary for those pathways to work well.” (3)
Thus lack of sleep affects memory, decision making, attention span, and mood; causes the thinking process to slow, and confusion to arise. However, it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to notice that when one is well-rested they work better and more effectively than when they are sleep deprived. When I’m well-rested I am more invested in class, I’m better at conveying my thoughts, I recall information quicker, I can manage my time better, and I’m less tired by the time I get to my homework. When I’m well-rested I’m a better student, thus, sleeping in the extra hour or so and taking a break isn’t necessarily unproductive.
As my teachers, Mr. Whitman and Dr. Kelleher said in their book, “Neuroteach,” a common myth about the brain is that when we sleep, the brain shuts down. The reality is that “the brain is still active when we sleep, and certain crucial brain tasks, including ones associated with memory storage, only happen during this time. Sleep is vital for learning.” (4) In fact it’s probably the best way to use my time. Thus, my failure in the eyes of teachers to sign up for more activities during Time by Design and opt to sleep in is, in my eyes, my success. While to some it may look like students are merely looking to do less work, sleep helps students do more quality work, and improve their mental health. Finally, in the race for sleep, I’ve gotten to a point where I can stop and catch my breath.
Sarah Schwartz is a member of St. Andrew’s Class of 2020 and was named a “Bethesda Magazine” Extraordinary Teen for, in part, her activism around immigration.
(1) Time is the Prize: Our Research Informed Schedule in Think Differently and Deeply volume 3 (2018).
(2) Teens and sleep: Why you need it and how to get enough. (2008). Paediatrics & Child Health, 13(1), 69–70.
(3) U.S Department of Health and Human Services National Institute of Health, Your Guide To Healthy Sleep, publication no. 11-5271, [Page 13], November 2005, accessed August 24, 2019, Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthy_sleep.pdf.
(4) Whitman, G., & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.