SCIENCE: America’s Kids Need Sleep And Time To Play To Avoid Mental Health Problems
As debate rages over possible ways to curb school shootings such the one that occurred recently in Parkland, Florida, increased attention to the mental well-being of young people often pops up as a recommended priority.
One starting place could be scrutiny of the crazy scheduling that government schools impose on students and families. In no way am I suggesting that making school days less regimented would eliminate violent attacks on students and teachers. However, reducing unnecessary stress could make school not just a happier place but one more conducive to fellowship and learning.
A longing for a safer, saner, less hectic pace in the pursuit of learning no doubt helps explain why a recent national poll shows only three in 10 American parents say they would choose a governmental district school if they had a free choice. That is startling number considering that eight of every 10 U.S. students now attend public district schools.
A survey by the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical arm revealed 90 percent of homeschooling parents listed the “negative environment” of their child’s neighborhood public schools as one of their top reasons for choosing to go an independent route.
Tight scheduling contributes to a pressurized existence in which bad behavior is more likely to occur. One freedom home educators most cherish is scheduling flexibility. If their child needs to take a break from studies, he or she can go walk around a lake or sit under a tree without needing a hall pass. If the child needs an extra hour of sleep to be mentally sharp, no problem. The academic schedule can shift to later in the day.
By contrast, two major recent casualties of reforms in district schools are recess and sleep—both of which are big-time stress relievers.
Once a standard break for kids’ mental as well as physical health, recess has fallen by the wayside in the mad rush to prepare for and implement Common Core-style assessments. This is particularly ironic because some of the countries that do the best on standardized testing also emphasize the importance of exercise and free time.
For instance, proponents of governmental standardization extol Finland as an exemplar of educational excellence because of its students’ high rankings on international tests. However, they neglect to mention that “schoolchildren in Finland have a mandatory 15-minute outdoor free-play break every hour of every day,” as Fulbright Scholar William Doyle observed after a teaching stint there. “Fresh air, nature, and regular physical activity breaks are considered engines of learning.”
Oh, by the way, Finnish children don’t even begin formal schooling until age seven, another contrast with the United States, where many liberal politicians favor universal public preschool. Letting children be children seems to work pretty well in Finland, so why not adopt similar practices here in America?
Research in the United States shows giving children free playtime during school hours helps them pay better attention in class and engage with classmates peacefully. Yet only eight states require recess. There is a smattering of local innovation. For instance, the Thomasville (NC) Primary School was on track for a 50 percent drop in discipline referrals after it integrated recess into its daily routine with teacher-monitored games for the kids across the whole playground.
On the second front, U.S. teenagers in government schools surely would lead the world in sleep deprivation, if such a statistic were tabulated. Science indicates that while teens need more than nine hours of sleep on average to be mentally alert, most grab less than seven hours of shuteye on school nights.
The National Sleep Foundation has found from research the consequences of sleep deprivation are particularly serious for teens: “Teens spend a great portion of each day in school; however, they are unable to maximize the learning opportunities afforded by the education system [because] sleep deprivation impairs their ability to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, cope with stress and retain information. Young people who do not get enough sleep night after night carry a significant risk for drowsy driving; emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence; health complaints; tobacco and alcohol use; impaired cognitive function and decision-making; and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics.”
The education savings account (ESA) is one innovation that could go a long way toward freeing students and parents from the dreary, and sometimes even dangerous, lockstep of district school schedules. With an ESA, a family can draw from funds pegged for its children’s government schooling and purchase educational services from a variety of private or public providers. Parents decide what is needed most — be it a great-books class, some form of therapy, private schooling, or something else entirely — and where and how it should fit into the family’s schedule.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.