photo by MC Quinn
When I first had my own office, I used to block out afternoon nap times several times a week.
Back then, my wife and I had two small children who occupied my evenings. Once they were in bed, I would stay up late most nights reading reams of material from tax journals and other professional sources. During the day I was in an office alone, so I didn’t have the constant stimulation of interaction (or interruption). I knew I would do better work if I was refreshed, so the nap seemed to be a natural solution. And besides, I have a well-developed ability to fall asleep anywhere, including my dentist’s chair, at any time.
I needed my sleep when I was in my 30s, but not nearly as much as teenagers do. Especially today’s teenagers, many of whom have pressure-packed school days with heavy course loads, followed by tightly scheduled after-school activities, followed by hours of homework. Whatever you may think about the electronic distractions in young people’s lives, the fact is that many of the hardest-working people you will meet are not yet old enough to vote or, in some cases, even to drive themselves to their own activities.
It is not only a jam-packed schedule – don’t forget to include part-time jobs, SAT prep and college applications – that runs many teenagers ragged. They are often fighting biology. A growing body of research suggests that most adolescents need nine to 9 1/2 hours of sleep per night, which is not only more than most adults, but also more than most elementary-aged children. Michael Crocetti, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins, says that this is because teenagers are undergoing a second major stage of cognitive change. The extra sleep supports teens’ brain development, as well as their ongoing physical growth spurts.
Unfortunately, this need for more sleep arrives at the same time as a natural shift in circadian rhythm that makes it hard for most teenagers to fall asleep before 11 p.m., regardless of how they otherwise rearrange their activities. Given the start times of many high schools, a teenager would need to be in bed by 9 p.m. to get the amount of sleep she needs. Even for the rare student who is done with everything she must accomplish by that time of the evening, such a schedule just isn’t biologically feasible.
The problem is not new. Many pediatricians have called for later high school start times for years. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived adolescents are not only moody, but at risk for both physical and mental health problems. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last year also found that teens who fail to get enough sleep are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as drinking and driving, than their better-rested peers.
Yet actually changing school start times has proved challenging in some parts of the country. Some schools have done it successfully, but others run into problems with bus schedules or find a delayed end time poses problems for athletics and other after-school activities.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some high schools are taking a different approach. If they can’t let students sleep in for one reason or another, they are finding ways to offer sleepy teenagers the opportunity to nap.
“Nap rooms” have become popular with certain companies to keep their employees refreshed, especially in the tech industry. Thus the development of EnergyPods, a device designed to block outside noise and provide a 20-minute nap. It is famously available to employees at Google’s Mountain View campus. A government grant allowed a school in New Mexico to offer the EnergyPod experience to its exhausted students. Students who have used the devices report feeling refreshed, and the director of health services for the district told the Journal that some staffers have also made use of them.
Not every school is so high-tech, however. Some simply offer quiet rooms, which ban both conversation and technology, or give students free periods designed for rest and relaxation rather than completing school work. These approaches are relatively new in most of the United States, though schools in Japan and Brazil have demonstrated the benefits of midday naps for students.
Yes, in a perfect world, teenagers would go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake at 8 a.m., refreshed and ready to start their day. But that option simply is not available to many teens. The alternative of napping during the school day, even briefly, can improve not only grades, but health outcomes too. Kudos to those brave school boards and administrators who will risk criticism that they are coddling the kids to do something practical for the health and education of the young people in their charge.