March 11, 2004
Plunging grades, low self-esteem and depression don’t have to be hallmarks of adolescence. Researchers now believe unhealthy changes in your child’s attitude or schoolwork may be linked to lack of sleep.
Catch Some ZZZs
Many children slink past bed times the way the craftiest of thieves slip by security—with careful preparation and flawless backup plans. But new research shows that sleep-deprived middle-schoolers experience significant decreases in self-esteem, increased instances of depression and significant dips in grades.
Jean Rhodes, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, studied sleep in nearly 2,500 Chicago school children, aged 11 to 14-years-old. She reported in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development that as various factors suck the sleep out of children, a host of negative side effects result. "The fewer hours of sleep that children got, the more depressed they were, the higher number of depressive symptoms [they had], and the lower their self-esteem and the lower their grades," Rhodes explains.
Biologically, middle school marks a child’s second largest growth spurt, a leap that dwarfs even the elementary school years, Rhodes says. As children grow and learn to steer past the pitfalls of puberty, they also learn to shuffle schedules filled with more and more activities.
"There’s an increased need for sleep, yet at the same time middle-schooler’s lives are really complicated," Rhodes says. "They’re IMing (instant messaging), there are earlier school start times, extra-curricular [activities]…and so we know that this is a period of an increased need for sleep that’s clashing with an increased need to be awake."
Sleep deprivation isn’t exactly evident in the hallways of Bigelow Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts. There, children bounce about, rubber ball-like bundles of energy. Some seem too full of pep to ever be pooped. Yet, many express how tired they are by the end of the day, just as their overstuffed schedules hit the halfway mark.
Principal Marie Doyle maneuvers around the children’s energetic darts across the hall to preside at the head of an informal discussion group. Many students agree with her that they perform better given a good night’s sleep but often forsake hitting the hay for jostling PlayStation joysticks. "I’m completely addicted," one student says.
Doyle routinely speaks to students and parents about sleep, she says. After over twenty years in education, nine serving as Bigelow’s main administrator, she sees firsthand how loss of sleep affects some middle school children. "Often kids come to the office who have behavior problems," Doyle says. "And…it will come up that they’re tired. So, ‘Oh, why are you tired?’ Or, ‘Oh, why are you a little bit cranky?’ ‘Oh, I was up until one in the morning.’ And I’ll ask, ‘Why were you up so late?’ ‘Oh, I was playing this game’ That’s the student I see who’s often falling asleep or not doing as well as they could in class."
Conversely, Doyle also deals with perfectionists, those who take getting into college so seriously they’re overdosing on multiple activities, riding the incredible highs of high achievement that come with pouring over assignments. "Some students are so driven to excel that they’ll say they’re frequently up until 11 or 12 at night," Doyle explains. Parents are also directing children to "excel in not just one area but in several areas so that they can have this on their resume so that they can get into the best colleges," she adds.
Busy bees and bad boys and girls aside, there’s more to adolescent sleep deprivation. There’s also loss of sleep related to gender. "Girls get up earlier than boys on weekdays to get ready for school, to groom, to wash their hair, put on makeup, pick out their outfits."
But how do we know it’s not depression that’s causing lack of sleep or poor study habits? "The model only worked in one direction and that direction was sleep predicted changes in self-esteem and changes in depression and not the reverse," Rhodes says.
So, how much sleep should kids get? "Around nine hours," Rhodes says. Doyle recommends even more. "We say to parents [that the children] really need to have ten hours of sleep in order to function well."
With higher expectations capped by busier lives, how do parents and children manage sleep? That’s where professionals like Doyle step in. "We try to help parents understand that children need to have a balanced life," she says. "They need time to play, be creative, to also have down time. Sometimes they get so busy that it takes its toll in terms of stress and anxiety."
The best way to avoid sabotaging a child’s mental well-being is to foster better sleep habits. "There’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep," Rhodes says.