Least Resistance

So, I was listening to the news during a recent drive and heard some interesting information:

Certain communities have made the decision to delay the start of school in the mornings because new research shows that students are chronically sleep-deprived and it is affecting their performance.  There is even a movement called "Start School Later" that is lobbying legislators to change the school schedule.


Where were these people when I was going to school?!?

It's just like those school boards up north that close school when there is a hint of snow in the weather report. Back when I went to school, there had to be at least a couple of feet of snow on the ground before they'd even consider closing school! 

All joking aside, my biggest complaint about the whole thing is that this is characteristic of the way our society works nowadays: we find a symptom to a bigger problem and we turn everything upside-down to try to fix the symptom rather than focus on the real problem.

  • Got a common cold? Let's put you on a steady stream of antibiotics!
  • Got a sore knee? Let's set an appointment for surgery!
  • Overweight? Let's do burpees!
  • Got a Presidential candidate that doesn't appeal to the establishment? Let's re-interpret the rules! (Yes, both parties.)

The "Start School Later" group have pulled out all the stops to bolster their argument with all sorts of research. They refer to research that says:

  • kids are averaging less than 8 hours of sleep per night in stark contrast to the CDC recommendations of 9-10 hours,
  • 20-30% of high school students fall asleep at some point during the school day, [Nothing new here! This has been going on for as long as there have been kids at school!]
  • when 1 school changed their start time to 8:55am, there was a 70% reduction in the number of car accidents involving teens. [Seriously? I question how you can create a scientific link between changing the start time at school and the number of car accidents that teens have. They are completely unrelated events!] 
  • One report even says that they "estimate" by starting school later in the morning, over their lifetime, a child will earn $18,500 more in wages! [Wait a minute! How can we estimate someone will earn almost $20k more simply because their school started classes later?! Now I'm going to start blaming my schools for limiting my earnings potential!]

Here's a great one: 

Sleep-deprived teens participate in more violent and property crime than other teens. ["Wake Up Calls (Fast Facts)" from http://www.startschoollater.net/]

You can't assume that lack of sleep causes teens to participate in violent crimes. Where does this "data" come from? Most of it is self-reporting. So what if the researchers asked a bunch of juvenile offenders if they slept at least 9 hours each night? Do you think it would be bad-ass to admit to getting a full nights' sleep? So there is the possibility of flaws in the stuy and yet, this is supposed to be proof that school should start later...

Let me just say that, as an engineer who has spent much of my life adhering to the scientific method, I am appalled by all the "research" that we routinely hear reported in the media and through lobbying firms like this one. The majority of the time, the studies are incomplete, unsubstantiated, taken out of context, and can be used to draw practically ANY conclusions and support just about ANY argument. [If you don't believe me, watch this. In spite of the humor, he makes an abundantly legitimate point.] 

A Simple Solution

It sounds like the problem is that kids aren't getting 8 hours of sleep per night. It seems to me like there are 2 solutions to the problem: 

  • We can turn the world upside-down and force schools to start later...
  • Or, we can just get the kids to go to sleep earlier...

It's not easy to spot because it's tucked away on their website, but the folks at Start School Later confess that "poor planning, electronic and other distractions, and poor parenting can certainly contribute to the problem". So they're essentially admitting that the kids may just not be getting to sleep early enough for all of these reasons...

Wouldn't it make sense to address the planning, distractions, and parenting before we start legislating a change that may not resolve the problem?

And here's where you ask me: Alex, why do you think changing the start time won't help?  

Because there's been research to back it up. A study in the scientific publication, Sleep, found that students who delayed their school start time ended up going to sleep even later! Tell them they can go to school later and the kids are going to stay up later, doing whatever it is that they're doing! The researches suggested that "larger improvements to sleep patterns may be necessary to affect health, attendance, sleepiness, and academic performance". 

Shouldn't we leave the responsibility for the child to the parent? Isn't it up to them to make sure the kids aren't playing with their smart phones 'til the wee hours? Isn't it up to them to make sure there are no distractions?

Changing the time doesn't do anything if the discipline (in both the parent and the child) is missing. The extra time will be used to continue with the distractions because that's the path of least resistance. 

And isn't changing the start time also the path of least resistance? It's so much easier to pretend that we're doing something rather than doing the hard work to deal with the real problem. 

Let's talk to the parents. Educate them on the importance of getting their kids to bed early. 

How about coming up with some technological or social solution to the very real problem of needing to be constantly connected via phones and other devices? Maybe we should treat it like the addiction that it can be. 

Lastly, how about leveling with our youth. Letting them know how their future depends on the choices that they make today. You'd be surprised... They may just decide to go to bed on their own...