My baby nephew, Kaydien, jumps on the bed and maintains to giggle while he then ducks under the covers, stares at my mother and I with a big grin, and says “night, night.” Mind you, it was in the middle of the afternoon, and my mom and I both knew the three year old had no intentions of sleeping at that point in time. Although my nephew’s antics were perceived to be joke, it did suggest an important concept, sleep.
The book Why We Sleep (2017), written by Dr. Matthew Walker has demonstrated the true importance of sleep through scientific evidence. Walker proclaims adults need to sleep for approximately 8 hours to perform and concentrate at an optimum level throughout the day. (pg. 72). Sleep affects every living thing on this planet, including plants. Walker states human beings are the only species to deliberately deprive themselves of sleep, often getting less than 8 hours. (pg. 4). One fact Walker mentions about the lives of schoolchildren is the reoccurrence of sleep deprivation. I argue that sleep deprivation causes students to underperform academically, and believe schools in America should enforce later school start times to increase the duration of sleep for students.
REM and NREM Sleep
For the human mind to work at an optimum level, 8 hours of sleep is recommended by Dr. Walker. I will discuss two significant phases in the sleep cycle of human beings within this timeframe, REM and NREM sleep. The last two hours of the 8 hour sleep period is essential because this timeframe is predominately considered to generate REM sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is responsible for the experience we know as dreaming, and can also be referred to as “dream sleep”. All brains desire REM sleep which is often experienced in the last 2 hours of optimal sleep (7-9 hours). (pg. 46). In other words, if one is sleeping less than 6 hours a day, they are not generating enough REM sleep and risk the repercussions of sleep deprivation.
NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep is equally beneficial for all people. When one is experiencing NREM sleep, they are in deep sleep. This is the sequence of sleep where you are not dreaming and completely unconscious, unable to move any body part voluntarily. NREM dominates at the earlier part of sleep. (pg. 46). Non-rapid eye movement sleep is key for an individual to store daily memories such as facts and skills.
Our REM (dream) sleep is what makes mankind exceptionally unique. Between 20 and 25 percent of our sleep cycle is dedicated to REM sleep dreaming; primates’ sleep cycle only dedicates nine percent to dream sleep. REM sleep is important because it allows the human brain to better acknowledge how the world operates, giving the brain a superior ability to formulate innovative insight and problem-solving skills.
Sleep-deprived individuals not only decrease their mental ability to create and problem solve, but the restless also develop catastrophic physical health issues as well. Mental and physical diseases affecting the body, according to Walter, can be linked to sleep deprivation. Whether you are lacking REM and/or NREM sleep, one can expect to experience devastating consequences to their physical and mental health. A consistent lack of 8 hours of sleep can result in multiple illnesses, including weight gain, depression, anxiety, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, infertility, immune deficiency, and Alzheimer’s disease. (pg. 133). Even worst, these diseases have the potential to affect the student population due to school start times. A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation showed that 70 percent of parents believed their children get enough sleep, when in reality less than 25 percent of children aged eleven to eighteen were studied to actually obtain the recommended amount (8-10 hours). (316). It has been studied that most students within K-12 American schools are disrupted by early school start times.
Early School Start Times
The alarm clock could be the number one sleep disruptor used by young Americans in the 21st century. Alarm clocks have been studied to increase blood pressure, and send a shock to the acceleration of the heart rate in individuals. (280). A century ago, schools started no earlier than 9 a.m. and 95% of students did not use an alarm clock. (310). Speed up to the 21st century, and one will recognize that majority of children now need an alarm clock to beat the first school bell. Today, eighty percent of public high schools in the U.S. start before 8:15 a.m. and fifty percent start before 7:20 a.m. (308). School bus drivers thus start routes as early as 5:45 a.m. to pick up students whose parents work before 7 a.m. This would mean for children whose parents work at 6 a.m. or earlier could be woken as early as 5:15 a.m. to catch a 5:45 or 6 a.m. bus. To operate at an optimum level (8 hours of sleep), high school students would have to be asleep by 9:15 p.m. We can rest assure American millennials and teens did not, and do not, go to bed at 9:15 p.m. on a school night unless ordered by a parent.
Restful sleep has been noted to be beneficial to a student’s cognitive development. “One longitudinal study tracked more than 5000 Japanese schoolchildren had discovered that those individuals who were sleeping longer obtained better grades across the board. Controlled sleep laboratories studies in smaller samples show that children with longer total sleep times developed superior IQ, with brighter children having approximately slept forty to fifty minutes more than those who went on to develop lower IQ.” (311). Essentially, schools who delay start times 40 minutes after its original start time can improve a student’s IQ score and overall academic performance. It was also mentioned that later school start times will increase class attendance, reduce behavioral and psychological problems, and decrease substance and alcohol abuse, which are all problems disenfranchised youth deal with at a higher rate than their affluent counterparts. (313).
Walker produces a great point when he speaks about underprivileged students. Walker states, “Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be taken to school in a car, in part because their parents often have jobs in the service industry demanding work start times at or before six a.m. Such children therefore rely on school buses for transit, and must wake up earlier than those taken to school by their parents.” (312). Underprivileged students suffer from sleep deprivation at a higher rate than kids from affluent homes, making them more susceptible to mental disorders such as concentration, memory, and irrational behavior. Disenfranchised communities cannot continue to let their students suffer from sleep deprivation because of school start times. An agenda to push for later school start times should be advocated for to relieve underprivileged students of sleep deprivation.
A Solution for Lesson Plans
Walker presented evidence that later school start times can improve academic performance, but he also took a practical approach to modify his own university lesson plans. In his class, Walker relieves students from having to memorize a large portion of information at one time. He states, “There are no final exams at the end of the semester in my classes. Instead, I split my courses up into thirds so that students only have to study a handful of lectures at a time. Furthermore, none of the exams are accumulative.” (156). Memory being linked to sleep deprivation is a significant factor to why Professor Walker changed his instructional practices to benefit the performance of his students.. If teachers expect students to learn a large sum of material over a 3-4 month period, then students would need the privilege of sleep to do so. “If you don’t sleep the very first night after learning, you lose the chance to consolidate those memories, even if you get lots of catch-up sleep thereafter.” (157).
I want the concept of sleep to be acknowledged more often in majority-minority schools. Urban schools containing a majority-minority population should be aware of how they can improve the academic performance of their students, which can more sleep and later school start times. This can attribute to greater class attendance; efficient cognitive development; and lessen emotional tantrum in class from students (and perhaps teachers). Although alternating school start times is an obvious solution, it may be a more tangible method to modify lesson plans to assist with three-fourths of students who are sleep deprived at the high school level.
Conclusion: School-to-Workforce Sleep Deprivation
Finally, I want all workers to recognize how the lack of sleep affects mental and physical health. Sleep has hampered the American workforce in part because governments and employers have done little to recognize the disruptive sleep pattern of Americans. “A hundred years ago less than 2 percent of the population in the United States slept six hours or less a night. Now almost 30 percent of American adults do.” (297). New-age capitalism in the 21st Century is corroding the sleep pattern of its workforce, which we now know is devastating on our children. Workforce unions, as well as governments, will need to further observe the repercussions of school and work start time policies if we wish to created a healthier society.
Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams? Scribner. 2017.