A Call to End Early Starts in Education

We all know about the damaging effects of losing sleep. Some of us have also acknowledged how devastating it can be on our adolescents who have altered circadian rhythms that affect their ability to fall asleep early enough to accommodate the early school starting times. Yet, despite knowing all this, nothing much is happening on the front to delay the starting times for school.

Part of the problem lies in the entrenched belief that teenagers struggle to wake up in the morning because they’re lazy, or because they lack the discipline to sleep earlier. Perhaps if more parents realised that the problem lies in their teenagers’ internal body clock, there might be a stronger push to delay school starting times.

Then again, even if we were all on board, uprooting an entire school’s schedule is not easy to initiate. Not only will it difficult for the school but for the families as well. Those with more than one child will have children attending school at different times, making it harder to coordinate drop off and pick up. Pushing back the start time by one hour will mean hitting peak hour traffic which will defeat the purpose of starting later if we end up spending more time on the road getting the kids to school.

I remain hopeful that we will eventually find a resolution for this problem because many schools have already made significant headway towards improving the education system for our children. Meanwhile, if we continue to spread awareness of this issue, perhaps it might gain the attention it deserves. The following article published by Routledge outlines the crux of the problem:

Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: ‘Let teens sleep, start school later’

Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster & Jonathan Kelley.
Volume 40, Issue 1, Learning, Media and Technology.

Study reveals that traditional student start times are damaging learning and health

A study by researchers from the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School and the University of Nevada has found that current school and university start times are damaging the learning and health of students.

Drawing on the latest sleep research, the authors conclude students start times should be 08:30+ at age 10; 10:00+ at 16; and 11:00+ at 18. Implementing these start times should protect students from short sleep duration and chronic sleep deprivation, which are linked to poor learning and health problems.

What are the optimal times for starting school?

  • 10 years old – 8:30am
  • 16 years old – 10:00am
  • 18 years old – 11:00am

These findings arise from a deeper understanding of circadian rhythms, better known as the body clock, and the genes associated with regulating this daily cycle every 24 hours.

It is during adolescence when the disparity between inherent circadian rhythms and the typical working day come about. Circadian rhythms determine our optimum hours of work and concentration, and in adolescence these shift almost 3 hours later. These genetic changes in sleeping patterns were used to determine start times that are designed to optimize learning and health.

The US Department of Health has also recently published an article in favour of changing the start times for Middle and High Schools.

Learn more at the British Science Festival

Corresponding author Paul Kelley (Honorary Clinical Research Associate, Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford) will be presenting Time: the key to really understanding our lives at the British Science Festival on Tuesday 8 September. As the British Science Association’s President of Education this academic year, Kelley will be advising the audience on how our better understanding of our body clock can benefit us all.

The Festival will take place from 7-10 September in Bradford, and provides an opportunity to meet researchers face-to-face and discuss the latest science, technology and engineering.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend, but if you’re in the region, you can still reserve your place at www.britishsciencefestival.org (space for some events is limited, so you’d better book now).


The Dark Side of Smart Devices

I love technology, I love my smart phone, and I love my computer. In fact, I’m probably more addicted to them than my boys are. And while I love all my smart devices and think they are the best inventions since sliced bread, I do agree that we need to find an optimal balance in the use of technology. Just because our children can learn so much more through the technology they use doesn’t mean we can allow them to go “no holds barred”. Too much of anything, even good things, can sometimes be a really bad thing. So how bad is bad?

Smart Devices Mess with Your Sleep

Recently, there was an article in Scientific American on how use of smartphones (which actually included smart devices and computers) before bed messes with your brain and your sleep.

In my anecdotal study of one, I can’t say that using the computer or my phone before going to bed has ever had any effect on my ability to fall right to sleep, then again, I must admit that I am usually sleep deprived so falling asleep has always been easy for me. That said, we still have a restriction for the boys – no playing devices before bedtime and definitely no access to screens in the bedroom (especially when we know all the problems that lack of sleep can lead to).

Sleeping near a small screen, sleeping with a TV in the room, and more screen time were associated with shorter sleep durations. Presence of a small screen, but not a TV, in the sleep environment and screen time were associated with perceived insufficient rest or sleep. These findings caution against unrestricted screen access in children’s bedrooms. – Pediatrics, 2015


Toddler iPad Addiction Requires Therapy

Okay, this one is just ridiculous so I’m just going to refer you back to a response I wrote some time back: What do you mean kids are addicted to their iPad and require therapy? Honestly, too much of anything equals addiction and most of the time, it’s just a matter of being sensible in the first place. I’m sure I’m not the only one raising eyebrows when I hear that a 3 year old is so addicted to the iPad that the only thing a parent can do is send that child to a therapist. I mean, really? Where’s the parent in all of this?

Too Much iPad Causes ADHD

The premise behind this argument lies in the fact that ADHD is on the rise and technology use is also on the rise. Well, correlation does not equal causation. If you need an example, just check out these 10 bizarre correlationsThe article examining the relationship between ADHD and use of smart devices also says as much:

children, on average, spend nearly seven and a half hours each day staring at those tiny displays, up 20 percent from just five years ago, leading some experts to believe the surge of ADHD diagnosis coincides with the skyrocketing use of mobile devices…

To be clear, these findings are correlations, and not causal links.

Then again, I’m also of the opinion that we may be overdiagnosis ADHD and that we need to be more cautious before we start dispensing drugs that have side effects like addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis to children.

Excessive Screen Time Interferes with Normal Child Development

This is the real concern that I have with technology. Children, especially the younger ones that are still learning their place in the world and how to navigate through the choppy waters of social interactions, are especially in danger of excessive screen use.

“If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,” Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.” – NY Times

More than that, they also need time to interact with each other so they can learn conflict resolution and how to get along with others in the real world. This is one of the problems I highlighted in “First World Problems with the iPad Generation“. It is easier to hand the kids an iPad, or to plonk them down in front of the idiot box, and let the electronic babysitter keep the kids quiet so we can have our moments of peace. But while it keeps the peace and harmony in the house, it is doing a disservice to our children because they are being robbed of precious opportunities to learn things like how to get along with the annoying younger sister, or that bossy older brother. They don’t have the opportunities to collaborate on made-up games and activities they work on together. These are interactions that children need time to practice – time they won’t have if they are too busy living in their isolated technology bubbles.

Conflict isn’t just important for children – it’s important all through our lives. Even the most loving of husbands and wives go through conflict as they learn to live together, overcoming those little idiosyncrasies that seemed cute during the dating stage but intolerable once married. Those who learn to work through the conflict come away stronger than ever.

Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues

  • Preteens spent five days in a nature camp without access to screens and were compared to controls.
  • Both groups took pre- and post-tests regarding nonverbal emotional cues.
  • The experimental group’s recognition of cues improved significantly over the control.
  • Time away from screen media, with increased social interaction, may improve comprehension of nonverbal emotional cues.

Given that a pre-requisite for effective socialization is learning and practicing how to communicate with others in person, face-to-face experiences must be emphasized in the socialization process. While digital media provide many useful ways to communicate and learn, our study suggests that skills in reading human emotion may be diminished when children’s face-to-face interaction is displaced by technologically mediated communication.

Computers in Human Behavior, 2014

The Real Screen Addiction

I may have scoffed at the idea of toddlers being addicted to screens because that’s not the real issue at hand. The real danger of screen addiction is our own. Have you ever turned on your phone for a specific purpose but got side-tracked by the myriad of distractions on your phone until you no longer remembered the original purpose for picking up your phone?

I was at the fridge when I realised we were out of milk. I picked up my phone to add “milk” to my shopping list when I noticed I had a message from my best friend. “Check this out!” She messaged with a link to an article. I read the article, then checked my other messages. Then my email. Then I took a quick look at facebook to see what was new. By the time I was done, I vaguely remembered wanting to do something with my phone but I couldn’t remember what. I put down the phone and went back to the fridge to finish making my coffee and remembered again that we had no milk.

The urge to pick up that smart phone has become an such unconscious nervous tick that we don’t even realise the habit until we keep finding our hands reaching for the phone like a toddler reaching for the comfort of her safety blanket.

Technology Multi-tasking and the Brain Drain

We know that multi-tasking is bad. Among other things, it reduces our concentration and impairs memory formation. When we’re constantly multi-tasking between our smart phones and daily life, it is no wonder the Mom Brain grows worse and never seems to recover.

Technology and the Great Divide

But that’s not all… Technology is also affecting our relationships with our children. In a survey by online security company AVG Technologies, 54% of children felt their parents checked their devices too often, while 32% of children felt unimportant when their parents get distracted by their smart phones. So it seems it’s not just our children whose social development is being impacted by technology, but ours, too.

Image Source: HuffPost Parents

As much as I still love my devices, I guess a little separation time might be in order.


Maximise Your Child’s Learning Potential

When I was growing up, there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the brain and how it functioned. In fact, we knew so little about it that we often did a lot of things that negatively impacted our learning. For instance, pulling all-nighters before an exam was a norm, perhaps even expected if you cared enough about doing well in your exams (never mind the fact that we now know you are better off getting a good night’s rest before the exam than burning the midnight oil). It was also typical to stop all other activities – no music, sports or extra-curricular activities (unless they were part of your final year subjects) – so we could concentrate on studying for those vital transcripts that would dictate our options for future career paths.

It was in ignorance that we did a lot of things that were really derailing us from achieving the goals we were so desperate for. Now, we know better. Helping our children succeed in school isn’t only about which special programs and extra classes we can enroll them into so they can get the one-up on their peers, it is also about creating a positive environment and ensuring that our children are well – physically and emotionally. If we are truly interested in the academic success of our children, we also need to ensure that we meet their needs for optimal learning.

These are some annotated notes from a talk at our school recently on unleashing the potential in our children by understanding the importance of wellness from a neuro-scientific perspective. If we want our children to reach maximum potential, we need to make sure that these needs are attended to…

Sleep to Learn

This is why all those late nights were so bad for our academic performance…

What happens when your brain doesn’t sleep?

  • slower thought processes
  • difficulty forming logical conclusions to problems
  • difficulty learning new tasks
  • difficulty making novel connections
  • lack of imagination
  • lack of focus
  • stuttering
  • blurred vision
  • hallucinations
  • slurred speech

Image Source: The Holiner Psychiatric Group

It can be so significant that the lost of one hour of sleep a night can make a sixth grader function at the level of a fourth grader. The bottom line: if your child isn’t sleeping enough, academic performance suffers.

Hydrating the Brain

We need to make sure our children are drinking enough water because 75% of the human body is water. If the body is not adequately hydrated, it affects their ability to keep their attention focused, it impairs short-term memory and the recall of long-term memory, and it compromises their ability to perform mental arithmetic.

Related: How Dehydration Impacts Brain Function

Feed the Brain Right

Like any other part of the body, the brain requires nutrients and energy for optimal functioning.

Top 5 Brain Foods:

  1. Oily Fish – Omega 3 is essential for development and maintenance of brain tissue
  2. Blueberries – protects short term memory loss
  3. Pumpkin Seeds – Good alternative source of Omega 3 for vegetarians
  4. Chocolates – may help sharpen the mind and boost short-term cognitive skills
  5. Avocado – helps blood flow to the brain which is important for staying alert and focused.

Related: Nutrition – Boosting Brain Power

Take Brain Breaks

This is why we should not encourage our children to quit their sports and other extra-curricular to devote their focus on their studies…

Taking breaks from studying is good for the brain – especially when the breaks involve physical activity. The following image shows EEGs of the brain’s neuroelectric activity during a test after 20 minutes either sitting or walking. The group that sat for 20 minutes have more blue areas indicating a dip in neural resources devoted to focus, while the group that went for a walk have heightened attention and faster information processing.

Image Source: Slideshare

Related: Sports and Physical Activity are Important for Brain Development and Academic Performance

Sense of Purpose

Encourage kids to develop their own passions and interests because that joy and enthusiasm they have will transcend their learning experience. Having a positive motivation for learning has a positive effect on the brain. It triggers the release of chemical messengers in the brain which in turn increases executive function and attention.

High achievers without a sense of purpose are more prone to depression, anxiety and suicide, while those with a sense of purpose were more positive, motivated and stronger learners. – Edutopia

See also: How a Bigger Purpose Can Motivate Students to Learn

Stress Management

It is important to teach our children how to manage stress because a stressed brain cannot learn.

Stress impacts memory and learning. During periods of stress, we are more forgetful and we have greater difficulty retaining information. Stress also sabotages the neural pathways of the prefrontal cortex (higher brain function) which carries out the executive functions – self-control, impulse control, memory, and reasoning – which are vital for successful learning.

Image Source: Brain Harmony Center


Practice Mindfulness

One way to help children learn to manage stress is to teach them to practice mindfulness. Here’s why:

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.