The Palo Alto Weekly article (Jan. 9) on the sleep assembly at Gunn High School continued a lively discussion on how we can best help our students have a healthier and happier adolescence. I was struck by the numerous online comments about the need to limit homework and the hopes that the administration would do so soon.
Some of these comments were similar to the recommendations by two sleep experts, Drs. William Dement and Rafael Pelayo, who spoke at the assembly. They discussed the need to increase sleep and not do homework at the expense of sleep. They also shared how a sleep deficit can impact the safety of our students in many ways, such as unsafe driving, increased illness, an increase in impulsivity and irritability, a decrease in academic performance, increased risk of sports injuries and even an increased risk of suicide. Dr. Pelayo emphasized that research findings show students with increased sleep perform better academically and in athletics.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, it was concerning that much of the community discussion centered on the need for the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) to limit homework as a tool for increasing sleep but with little mention of other very important variables. Limiting homework is certainly one step that can help our kids, and I believe the school administration is working towards that end. In fact, Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann said last semester that all teachers will be estimating the amount of homework assigned, and students will be surveyed on homework load. This was already done in November for all math classes at Gunn.
However, there are many causes for sleep abnormalities, and not all of them are school-related. It is helpful as parents to see where we can affect the safety of our children. Parents can be alert to biological, psychological, cultural and environmental contributors to sleep loss and seek information and help if needed in these areas. Contributing conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, anxiety and mood disorders can be treated by health professionals, and kids should be referred who have symptoms suggesting such underlying causes of sleep loss. Simple steps such as no caffeine after lunch time make a world of difference for many people with insomnia. Psychological issues include teens feeling it is cool to stay up late or that school work or socializing is more important than sleep.
Parents can help their teens solve these problems of adolescence whether it is an attitude change, learning how to organize their time better or setting limits to allow for more sleep. In the past, social mores helped parents in setting these limits. Now, social networking and hand-held electronic devices obliterate what was once a cultural norm of no calling after 9 p.m. on a school night.
Parents can also help when there are environmental stressors that contribute to sleep loss. For example, the reliving of trauma can be disruptive to sleep and can be relieved by getting psychological help for these teens.
More commonly, electronic devices have entered the environmental scene of teens' lives in ways we middle-aged parents can barely anticipate. Lights shining from these devices into the retinas of the user prevent release of melatonin in the brain and delay sleep onset. Also, they are small and portable, which makes them a common part of teens' bedtime routines. This can keep the user's mind turned on and tuned in. Instead, people are better able to fall asleep by lying in bed with a routine of dim lights, and less thought and stimuli. Recommendations are that these devices not be used for one hour prior to a planned bedtime, and never in bed.
At the Gunn assembly students were asked about their use of these devices. They indicated that their usage was even higher than teens studied by Dr. Pelayo in his research. This is not surprising given that PAUSD teens live in the heart of Silicon Valley, the place of invention and promotion of such devices.
Given these findings, it is not surprising that teens were openly texting during the assembly last week. What's critical is not that they were texting during the talk on sleep, but that they don't interrupt each other's sleep by texting after 10 p.m. on weeknights. Again, parents can set limits on texting, teens can re-create social norms and turn off their devices by a certain hour so as not to disturb their or others' precious sleep time, and the industry can consider options such as automatic off times programmed into devices for users.
Schools cannot be wholly responsible for the biologic, cultural and environmental contributors to our children's mental and physical health. However, as Gunn administrators Dr. Herrmann and Tom Jacoubowsky noted, they can help educate our children and our community on ways to be healthy in mind and body. I applaud their work to collaborate with experts in these areas and to bring internationally known sleep experts to our students as they did last week.
Ongoing education and discussion on these topics is critical to change our new culture of electronic devices. Perhaps, the next step is pairing homework policy with sleep standards and continuing a collaboration between schools and parents to see where it takes us.
I recommend a plan to encourage students to not work after a certain time at night so that sleep becomes the top priority. If students utilize a system in which they stop doing homework by 10 p.m. and are given no consequences in making up the work, the school can start to more readily determine who needs more support to maintain healthy boundaries. Sometimes that support is less homework or a lighter course load. Sometimes it is a medical referral. Sometimes it might be a contract with a student and parents to turn off electronic devices and go to bed.
Sleep well Palo Alto. Dream of change. It has been possible. It still is.
Dr. Maria Daehler is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a parent of PAUSD students and an over-use and admirer of electronic devices (but working at turning them off by 10 p.m.).