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Blog: Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Sleepless in Schools

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

I came across an article recently that re-ignited a debate that has been brewing in educational circles for decades. It centred around the lack of sleep that adolescents get relative to what they need, and the things that schools do to make the problem worse. If you are not familiar with the debate, allow me to summarize it briefly here. The article called “Sleep More in Seattle” nicely captured the issue. Adolescents need sleep even more than adults, as it is critical to their development, and literally to their ability to learn. Eight hours is optimal, but adolescents in North America get between six and seven hours sleep each night, well below what they need.

The fix seems simple: either we get kids to bed earlier, or we allow them to sleep a little longer by starting school later. For a myriad of reasons, school districts have not been able to pull this off. Parents and school staff alike have expressed concerns about the impact this would have on sports and after-school activities, after school care programs, bussing, etc. These are not simple matters in the lives of our families and schools. So, we are caught in a sort of stand-off, where we periodically complain about parents not making kids go to bed at night on one hand, and commiserate about the inflexibility of our schools systems to respond to scientific evidence that we know impacts learning and student well-being. Hmmm…

Of late we have taken to blaming excessive screen time as the culprit, and while it certainly does not help to have your teenager watching YouTube videos in her room into the small hours, the most recent evidence suggests that screen use is about as predictive of sleep patterns as “how many potatoes they eat.”  So, if screen time is not as significant to sleep patterns as we thought, this brings the problem squarely back into our court. How can schools address this issue?

Armed with this information and determined to do something about it, the staff in Seattle School District decided to break the stalemate. In 2016 all middle and high school students started school one hour later in their district. Start time was moved from 7:50 to 8:45. The article I read shared the outcome of this intervention, as they enlisted the support of the University of Washington to measure the impacts. For what it is worth, here are some of the big conclusions:

  • Students on average increased their nightly sleep by 34 minutes
  • Increased attendance was noted across all grades
  • Reduced sleepiness and increased social engagement in school as self-reported by students
  • Improved academic performance

I summarize the findings here and will note that there are a number of variables. By no means should we try to simplify what is obviously a complex issue, but if in fact we know more sleep is better for kids, should we not have another look at how we can take advantage of this knowledge? As difficult as this conversation would be in our district, don’t our kids deserve our best?

By Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

Kevin has been the Superintendent of Schools for the Abbotsford School District since July 2011, overseeing some 19,000 students and 2,500 employees. Kevin is committed to student success in all forms and envisions a school district that can nimbly respond to the ever changing needs and interests of its students.