Mixed Outcomes From Delaying School Start Times

Over the last few years there has been a growing level of noise about shifting school start time for teenagers in high schools. The argument is that teenagers’ body clocks are running on different time and that, to acknowledge that, we shouldn’t ask them to get up so early in the morning and school should start later.

I’ve read a lot on this and, my son for one would hate to hear me say it – I never really bought it. I remain open to be convinced, but as of now I just don’t believe the case has been made strongly enough.

Even before getting in to the science and the issues about children and their body rhythms there are, to my mind, some very obvious practical issues. In almost any city in the world, the one good piece of news with early school starts is that the commute time for children is reduced by the fact that they’re on the road to school before the worst of the traffic. As the early hours of the morning move forward, every 10 minutes later leaving home requires an extra 5 minutes on the road. So, you finish up with situations where a 45 minute shift in school start time only sees students leave school 20 minutes later than they were before. The rest of the time is ‘lost’ on the road in heavier traffic.

In addition, many families have their time routines dictated by the time parents need to leave for work. So, again, shifting the school start time may have relatively little impact for the child. practically, the family may still need the child to get up at about the same time.

Then, we come to all the reasons why this was being suggested in the first place.

When I was growing up, there was a continual game going on between me and my sisters and our parents. The object of the game from our perspective was to use every kind of subterfuge or time-wasting excuse to stay up. My son did exactly the same thing from an early age. I think it’s driven by all sorts of things. FOMO – fear of missing out is one part. In addition, there was television and that always seemed to offer the most interesting and tempting fare just after the allotted time for going to bed.

For children today two significant things have happened. Firstly, the temptations of media have multiplied exponentially. So much so that the TV may hold relatively little interest compared with the PS4, social networking etc. Secondly, ‘discipline’ and rules are not as cut and dried as they were in my time, especially with teenagers. Parents find they have to ‘pick their battlegrounds’ with their oh so sensitive teens. Peer pressure says that everyone else stays up to whatever time they want, so attempts by parents to exert any kind of rules are seen as draconian and completely unreasonable. Thus, masses of research that shows that like most adults, teenagers are sleeping less now than in the past.

So, if this becomes habitual, should we really be surprised that they can’t get up in the morning, or that their body clocks accept this as normal?

There’s another problem that started, I think, with my generation and has only got worse since – the laying in at weekends. This is the idea that you can get yourself increasingly sleep deprived all week, and then make up the deficit by staying in bed late at weekends. All my understanding today of the evidence is that this is disastrous – a terrible thing to do and highly detrimental to the body clock and to many other aspects of effective functioning.

I have to acknowledge that I picked up this particular bad habit in my younger years and, at times, it’s been hard to escape from. So, I can quite understand how children today are even more quickly sliding in to the kinds of habits that don’t support them to be at their best in the morning.

The evidence is starting to come out, more and more, that this was a naive and simplistic response to a problem that is really, more than anything else an issue of self-discipline, good habits and persistence in the face of temptations. Here’s a recent article;

US News – Later High School Start Times Yield Mixed Results

My son recently had a change of travel arrangements to school. it meant he leaves the house around 20 minutes later than he used to. For the first couple of months, this was great news and he was fresher, on time and I didn’t have to chase him out of bed in the morning. However, over time, even though i encouraged him to stick to the previous bed time, he started to push the limits on the bed time. The result – probably as much struggle to get up on time for the later time as for the earlier time. The benefit of those 20 minutes has already gone.

As I said before, I’m still open to being convinced that there is a scientific basis to this – one that doesn’t simply reflect that adjusted sleep habits have their own outcomes. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on undoing the bad habits I’ve acquired regarding sleep over so many years. Maybe, ultimately, setting good example is the best thing I can do for my own child.

Doing Great Work

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, at least at some time, wrestle with issues of conflict between dealing with the pressing and urgent in their work and the need/ desire to give quality time to work that’s important but less pressing, immediate and urgent.

We have never worked in more connected ways. Even when we’re not meeting or interacting face to face, today’s work day is punctuated by a continual flow of emails. One of the problems, in my experience in most organisations is people don’t openly talk about expectations with regard to these issues. If, for example, somebody sends an email, by when should they anticipate or expect that it will have been seen and a reply received? On the subject of emails, are companies training their people in effective email etiquette and best practices? My suspicion is that very few do. And yet, within most companies there are vast hidden costs being incurred through inefficiency and lost productivity and effectiveness. All this also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety, especially for employees who want to be productive, to achieve and individually and collectively take their organisations forward.

One of many examples is where people (and I’m not going to claim innocence on this type of thing!) send multi-point emails. If I send someone a mail asking four different questions, and they can only answer two immediately, what are they to do? Answer on those two and make a commitment by when they will answer on the others? Hold off answering any of the points and keep the whole mail pending? There’s no easy answer.

Worse, the answer will vary within an organisation depending on who were the sender and the recipient. There are all sorts of issues about rank and status, but different people tend to operate with different practices and expectations (while all their colleagues have to figure out what’s expected).

Another very common issue with email is where people find it ambiguous about expectations when mail is sent outside work hours. Personally, I’ve often sent mails out of hours, but partly so that the mail would be available to the recipient as soon as they get in to work on the next day (or after a weekend). However, i do recognise it’s important to tell people that I’m not expecting them to be working out of hours. This particular issue has been perceived so negatively that France and other European countries have passed legislation prohibiting the sending of work related mail outside working hours. I personally feel it’s rather sad that it had to come to such a prescriptive ‘blunt instrument’ approach in those countries. people should have flexibility and an ability to work in the ways that suit them best, but we need to find better ways to make that fit with others’ working needs.

Emails are one of the bad interruptions that disturb our ability to carve out real quality blocks of time in the working day to do meaningful, high quality work. One of the others is face to face interruptions. it’s a very rare organisation where people stick to the rigours of using calendar scheduling to fix mutually agreeable times to meet, even for 10 minutes. Instead, you have the infamous, “I just need two minutes,” that invariably turns in to 15, which is then followed by 15 minutes of confused and muddled working as the individual tries to regain their focus on what they were immersed in the moment the interruption came. In the worst cases, your interruptions can get interrupted leaving you completely confused. I confess, one day last week i got home after a long day in the office, only to realise that an important email I’d started writing at 11.00am was still open on my laptop, nearly finished along with two others from during the afternoon that were barely started!

In open plan and glass offices it’s become fashionable to suggest that all leaders are duty bound to keep an ‘open door’ policy. However, i believe that if this is at the expense of failure to carve out decent blocks of time to do meaningful and important work, then it’s counter-productive. The urgent cannot always have precedence over the important. We have to be willing to have the conversations with our colleagues and team members about how to give each other the space and time to do meaningful blocks of work. Otherwise, we finish up filling each others’ days with urgency, leaving us no choice but to sacrifice personal time away from the office to do the truly important work in less disturbed circumstances. haven’t we all found that in two hours at home, we can complete more than we would in 8 office hours and to a better standard. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way and at the expense of personal space and time.

Another area where we struggle is with meetings. Meetings have been universally disliked for as long as i’ve worked in my life. yet, they can serve valuable purpose and cannot/ shouldn’t be avoided. Again, there need to be process discussions that ensure people understand what’s expected of them so that meetings can be truly effective;
a) people owe it to each other to come prepared. Too many turn up to meetings poorly prepared and meeting time is then spent getting people up to speed with where they should have been on arrival,
b) Focus needs to be on the meeting – not on laptops, mobile phones and other external things. We have an interesting challenge coming up with video conference technology installed for remote meetings. In the past, skype calls with groups have been messy and disjointed because people had the habit of leaving the room(!). Even those who stayed in the room sometimes took the opportunity to complete other, non-related work. If those meetings are to be effective, we’ll need more self-discipline than that!
c) Agenda creation for meetings can be a minefield if team members seek to ‘stack it’ with their personal agendas. People can be fond of requesting fixed finishing times for meetings, but go off at tangents, ride hobby-horses and use time wasting as a tactic to avoid decisions they disagree with. On the other hand, overly rigid meeting protocols stifle meaningful discussion rendering meetings sterile and mundane. It takes real effort on the part of all to find a happy medium.

I’d like to finish here, sharing a fun piece from Fast Company in which some senior employees from Tech companies share their thoughts on the habits they want to break so as to be more productive and efficient in their work;

Fast Company – Kicking Seven Work Habits

Right, I’m finishing there, because i acknowledge that habit 6 is most certainly one for me to tackle!

Screen Time and Sleep

These are two topics on which I’ve written quite often, mainly because these days they are right at the top of the agenda when it comes to causes of worry and anxiety for parents (and anyone working with children). The fear levels tend to rise in the weeks of ‘idle leisure’ of school vacations when children feel free to indulge themselves.

Screen time and usage is something really quite new, both for children and adults, and so people struggle with very differing opinions about what’s right, healthy and makes sense without causing harm. For many parents, seeing their child frittering hours of meaningless time on mindless ‘online’ activities, the suggestion that we should be using more ICT in the classroom and as part of the learning process is met with some alarm. The internet is seen (sometimes because of parents’ own experiences) as a place of loss of self-control, the ultimate procrastinator’s pit of damnation. Their fears for their children are very genuine – my child will become habituated, if not addicted, to messing around mindlessly, won’t do what’s necessary to learn and study and will, as a result, be left behind in the race to succeed in life.

Recognising these fears and concerns, many experts have sought to research and experiment to shift these debates from the realms of conjecture to something based on real evidence. From time to time, there are some very good appraisals of where that research has reached. This NPR article I came across recently is such an example;

NPR – Education – On Kids And Screens, A Middle Way Between Fear And Hype

The article takes a sensible and nuanced line, avoiding sensationalizing. Key messages include;

a) Yes, there are risk issues for children, and we should be talking about them. However, that discussion should be balanced by more talk of the benefits to be had.
b) Buying the hardware/ software then handing it over to children and disengaging increases the risks. Adults need to remain engaged with the child and the technology to be sure they really understand what’s happening.
c) With a little creativity, parents can use the internet as much as TV to bring families together, rather than atomising – use of shared screens, watching or absorbing things together and having debates and discussions sparked by the material.
d) Technology use in schools is a problem area – it’s tending to only really be used creatively in the classrooms of odd individual teachers with a ‘techy, nerdy’ leaning rather than being embedded effectively in learning processes. There was a lot of early hype and at times this was more about wowing everyone with something new, rather than being clear that real, genuine learning benefits were resulting. Now, it’s time to move beyond that through more solid changes that work through curriculum, teacher training and school infrastructure development

In short – we need to get less ‘hypey’ about the technology, work to understand what’s happening with it more rationally and make our messages for parents and children far more nuanced about what’s in their best interests.

The topic of sleep in relation to children is usually very strongly entwined with issues of parents’ abilities to establish firm, consistent and effective home routines and habits around sleep issues that become natural and positive for children. As a result, it can be a painful touch point for some parents when they find themselves confronted with the evidence that they’ve not been as good as they might (or as good as some others) at getting effective home routines in place for their children. At times, this debate gets mixed up with the one above related to screen time and usage.

Who, as a parent, wants to willingly confront issues of their own inadequacies or shortcomings? Plus, what really is the evidence on the issues of sleep?

Well, the most obvious evidence is the clear data that shows we’re all sleeping less (often a lot less) than our ancestors accompanied by some fairly weighty evidence that this is all having detrimental effects on our health – physically and mentally. Here’s a recent article that shares some pretty startling data linking later bedtimes in young children with much higher levels of obesity in the teen years;

Stgist – Study says kids who sleep early are less likely to become obese teens

It’s important to understand that an article like this is saying that there is correlation, not cause proven in this statistical data. This does mean that claims can be made about one (late sleeping) can be a pre-cursor or evidence for the other (teen obesity), but not that one is caused by the other. Nevertheless, it all adds to a growing body of evidence for the life disadvantages that come for a child when strong disciplined home routines in the early years are patchy or non-existent.

I believe this has to be seen in a similar perspective to the development or management of positive life habits in people of any age. When Western countries had the big drive against smoking, there was a lot of stigma attached to a person who failed to quit. The suggestion was that such people were weak, lacked willpower or self discipline to do what was necessary to change their bad habit in to something positive. This was made worse by implications that such people weren’t just letting down themselves, but society as a whole!

We now know that such sanctimonious approaches really didn’t help. vast numbers of people were genuinely trying to deal with the issues, but by being stigmatized they were left with the impression that trying and failing (to quit) was almost worse than not trying as it demonstrated very visible human weakness and frailty. What worked for many of these people was an acknowledgement that changing ingrained habits is hard, has its good and bad times, but that each failure is not terminal.

I believe we must see the same approaches to help parents with establishing sleep and bed routines with young children. All are different. Some will get good routines quickly and easily and retain them. others will struggle for a long time to get good routines, but once they have them will retain them. Then there are others who will swing through periods of good and bad habits. We need to do more to help this latter group with strategies, especially when so much of the evidence points to significant benefits and points out an ever growing set of risk factors associated with the bad habits.

In the meantime, one of the most important factors is to be properly informed and to be making decisions from a position of knowledge and understanding.

Yet More Evidence on Sleep

It really does seem that sleep is a very hot topic for experimentation lately, and as a result we’re coming to know more and more that is critical from which we must learn lessons.

The latest I came across was this research that had some startling news that I really need to take note of:

Fast Company – Why Six Hours Of Sleep Is As Bad As None At All

What the article told me, very convincingly, is that when I’m consistently getting 6 – 6 1/2 hours in bed a night and think I’m experiencing no negative effects, I’m deluding myself. There is a cumulative effect and it’s very significant one. Over the years I’ve always wanted to believe I could squeeze a bit more out of each day – soe extra time for reading, email, blog writing (!) or other tasks, with the result that I’d have to ‘chase myself to bed’!

After reading this article there’s some serious habit changing work ahead, starting right now! I promise in a while I’ll share how I’m getting on and what benefits I see. Incidentally, after reading this, I’m even clearer in my mind that we should be teaching our children about this stuff and helping them to understand why it matters.

Taking Sleep Seriously

The weight of evidence is so strong that we really have to kill off all the macho, heroic myths around sleep deprivation. I remember that, years ago, there was much talk about how Margaret Thatcher only needed four hours of sleep each night when she was Prime Minister of Great Britain. I’ve also seen similar claims related to Tony Blair.

In my student days, it was almost seen as a badge of honour when you put yourself in the situation to ‘pull an all-nighter’ to get n assignment completed and handed in with minutes to spare the next morning.

Now I’m older, and hopefully a bit wiser, i can see that it was a basic equation between prioritising time for what was necessary/ important or what was fun, immediate and wanted. I don’t think I can really remember a single occasion when a night spent working and getting no sleep wasn’t the result of bad judgement and lack of self-control/ regulation rather than genuine volume of responsibilities and necessity.

I’ve been writing for some time about how sleep deprivation is exacting a toll on students and limiting their learning potential. here’s a very well written and presented article from McKinsey & Co that looks at another perspective – the organisational costs of insufficient sleep, especially when leaders are making decisions without getting enough shut-eye;

McKinsey – The organisational Cost of Insufficient Sleep

The article sets out a very strong case that the implications are so great that this must really matter to organisations. Rather than perpetuating cultures where people are recognised and rewarded for appearing to make personal sacrifices by going without sleep, organisations need to see that they potentially pay a heavy price when people are operating in less than effective states. In other words, they have to educate their workforce and help them to develop positive and healthy habits. Two days ago, i wrote about the Netflix culture. Interestingly, that was very clear that there should be n rewards or recognition for people according to how long they spend on the job or how much time they put in to work. Recognition should link purely to outcomes and the link to time should be de-emphasised.

I think it’s often quite hard to change such habits in adulthood. As a result, the right habits need to be established from an early age. This means;

a) Developing good routines and patterns around sleep and bed time for very young children,
b) Not treating staying up late as a special treat (too many do it with junk food as well).
c) We should teach our children about the basics of the science related to sleep, so that they understand why it’s important (not just tell them to do what we say),
d) We need to set good examples to our children about getting a healthy amount of sleep, including things like switching off devices an hour before bed. When we are at a less than optimal level of effectiveness due to lack of sleep, we should acknowledge this to our children.

In the past, we really didn’t know just how harmful these sleep issues could be. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, so we must change our ways.

Sleep Like a Winner?

When it comes to issues of how to be more successful n life, how to be more productive, achieve more etc. it’s inevitable that people cast around for every possible little factor that might make a difference. Recently, one that’s received lots of focus is sleep – from the perspective of simple quantity, quality and patterns.

One argument has been that if we replicate the sleeping habits of the rich and famous/ successful, then we too can have a better chance of achieving more. With this perspective, here’s a fun and interesting article that unearths lots of interesting things about the sleep patterns of successful people, both now and in the past:

NPR Article – Successful People’s Sleep Patterns

If we can draw any firm conclusions they are;

a) In terms of basic amount of sleep, successful and ‘normal’ people really aren’t vry different. Therefore, if sleep plays a part, it’s likely to relate to aspects other than the simple length of time spent sleeping.
b) In another article i read recently, there was discussion of the quality of bed and sleeping environment. Considering how much time we spend sleeping, this is something that few people pay attention to. Nevertheless, I can’t help suspecting that successful people can afford better beds and mattresses (or choose to spend more money on them), as well as maintaining a clean, healthy and positive sleeping environment.
c) Provided a person is getting around the right amount (for them), in line broadly with the figures in the article, much then depends on how we use the time before going to sleep and after getting up. My guess is that these factors have a far greater effect on productivity and effectiveness. Things like, planning for the next day and shutting down electronic devices before going to bed, healthy breakfast, exercise and prioritising in the morning.
d) There is no simple ‘magic bullet’ to fame, success and living our most effective and productive life. Instead of going looking for one, I think good reflective perspectives on what works most effectively for us and then the discipline to do more of those things is a far better route to take.

Practical Steps on Sleep Issues

I’ve written extensively about the hidden menace for children and young learners (and adults) regarding inadequate sleep, poor quality sleep and the perils of failing to have appropriate disciplines and strategies regarding sleep.

The evidence available today is so great that ignorance cannot be an excuse for creating situations where some children are significantly impaired in their learning abilities and scope to benefit fully from school.

It’s been interesting in recent months to see so many commentators, first in the US and then in UK, responding to the data that suggests that young people (particularly teenagers) are sleep deprived and suffering. Their response has been somewhat shocking to me – start the school day later! Quite frankly, this seems to be the wrong solution to the issue. I fear that all that will happen is – the start of the day shifts, so they’ll simply go to bed later still, spending more night time on social networking and other unproductive (but somewhat compulsive and dependency forming) habits.

This article from The Guardian offers, I believe, a far more reasonable response – educate children early about the role and importance of sleep, get them to introspect on the effects for them personally and then support and help them to form the right, positive habits to ensure healthy sleep patterns. This is a significant area where home and school can really leverage strong partnership for the good of the pupils:

The Guardian – Wake Up Call

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