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Sleeping Is for the Homeschooled

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In a study released earlier this month by National Jewish Health, a Colorado hospital, researchers found that homeschooled children have overall healthier sleeping habits than students who attend traditional schools.

Led by Dr. Lisa Meltzer, the research team found that, on average, homeschool students have better sleeping habits and better overall sleep health than typical students.

Meltzer's study is just the latest in a series of sleep research that shows how school start times are often out of sync with children's biological needs. Teenagers are believed to need at least nine hours of sleep, and as Meltzer notes in the NJH press release, it's not as simple as having teens go to sleep earlier; their biological clocks make them stay up late. (Teenagers really are stubborn to the core.)

In short, as Mary A. Karskadon wrote in a 2002 study, "Factors Influencing Sleep Patterns of Adolescents," just because school starts doesn't mean students do. "It is not at all unlikely that teenagers are being asked to be awake when the circadian system is in its nocturnal mode. The students may be in school, but there brains are at home on their pillows."

Homeschool students have two clear structural advantages over other students. First, homeschooling offers greater flexibility over when to start instruction than traditional schools do. When a parent is also the teacher, principal, and superintendent, decisions over start times get easier.

The other reason for a homeschool advantage is equally straightforward: Homeschooled children have stellar commuting plans (going down the stairs). Compare that with students who spend hours round-trip on their educations. A recent exhibit at the United Nations building, in New York City, showed what children around the world go through to get to school. It included those who navigate urban expanses to those who rely on beasts of burden.

The longest estimated commute in the United States recently belonged to Santiago Munoz, a Bronx High School of Science student who needed two buses and two subway routes to get to class, a trek made out of complications from Hurricane Sandy. According to the New York Post, that meant waking up at 5 a.m. If you figure that students don't really fall asleep until at least 11 p.m., he was getting about six hours of shuteye. To get a full nine hours, Munoz would have to go to bed at 8 p.m.

Munoz actually got lucky; after the Post story ran, the New York City Housing Authority helped him move closer to his high school, reducing his commute to a comparatively breezy one hour and 10 minutes each way. Still, 70 minutes is 70 minutes.

Such cases might be extreme, sure, but there's only so much time in a school day, and if anyone is going to adjust to allow for greater sleep, it likely won't be on the district's side. Not that there aren't efforts being made. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, some groups recently organized a symposium to promote later start times. But such changes certainly require greater effort than at homeschools.

H/T: Annie Murphy Paul

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