Whenever I am trying to understand scientific research, I think about what sources of error might exist. With the research on teens' sleeping patterns, I wonder if one source of error is that the teens in the studies have already been exposed to several years of staying up late doing homework. This would shift their sleep cycles later and make it hard for them to wake up in the morning. Is the later sleep rhythm among teens created by the circumstances in which they live, or is it innate, I wonder.
When I was young, my parents highly prioritized sleep. We kids were not allowed to stay up past 9:30 p.m. on any regular basis, and certainly not to do homework or study. My older sister and my mom sometimes fought about this. I triaged my homework and got enough sleep every night. I didn't necessarily do all of my homework. I did get eight or nine hours of sleep every single night. I also didn't spend a huge amount of weekend time on homework. For one thing, in the later years of high school, my dad having been laid off, I often worked one or two eight-hour shifts at the local grocery store on weekends. I was a morning person throughout high school. I often went to sleep around 9 p.m. and then woke up before 6 a.m. and went out for a workout before school. I did the homework that truly helped me learn and the homework that had a big effect on my grade in the class. When I was in class, I was well-rested, and usually understood and remembered things the first time around, eliminating most of the need to "study," which I did very little of. I usually got all of the questions right on tests, anyway.
The time in my life when my sleep cycle was the earliest was when I was in high school. This is part of why I wonder if the shifting of the sleep cycle to being more of a night owl is really innate to teenagers or if it's a result of excessive homework and lack of sleep.
Prioritizing sleep over homework had excellent results in terms of my ability to learn. I had an understanding of concepts that I could apply across subjects. I remembered what I learned, long into adulthood, even if I didn't use it regularly. I learned on a deep, lasting level.
Adolescents' brains are developing rapidly and they need a lot of sleep. An adolescent's sleep needs are around nine to 10 hours per night. It is the time of life of the highest sleep needs other than in infancy. Excessive homework interferes with this, leaving kids tired, depressed, having difficulty paying attention, having trouble getting out of bed, and more vulnerable to mental illness than they would be if they got adequate sleep.
A possible solution to this, that I believe might be the most pertinent to what the problem is, could be to limit the amount of homework. Let's say a teen spends all day at school, gets out at 3 p.m., spends two hours at a sports practice or game, or exercising on their own (this is just as valid as participating in organized sports), or doing farm chores, or taking care of younger siblings, or participating in theater or student council, or practicing an instrument, or seeing a doctor or therapist, or working at a job, or some other thing or some combination. There is also transportation time between things, time to eat dinner with the family, time to help make dinner or clean up. The student needs to go to bed in time to sleep nine hours. This leaves maybe three hours for homework. Let's say with block scheduling the student has four classes. This is 45 of homework minutes per class. So each teacher is allotted 45 minutes max of homework he or she can give out per night. They don't get a bigger allotment on the weekend -- kids need time to go to family functions, school functions, school athletic contests, jobs, and community programs, and they need down time.
Expecting a person to just work all the time, seven days a week, is unrealistic and a recipe for exhaustion and burnout. The brain learns better when there are breaks in which to focus on something entirely different. And "weekend" homework usually gets pushed into the hours a teen should be asleep, because most teens don't actually have free time all weekend. So the allotment of homework would be the same as during the week.
For middle schoolers with six classes per day, the allotment of homework per class would be no more than 30 minutes per day. Three hours per day of homework actually doesn't leave kids any waking downtime during the week, so actually that's probably too high. I think reducing homework quantity could be a more direct way to solve this problem.
Another element to this: I never got addicted to any substance, never even tried any substance in fact. I think it was related to the fact that I wasn't sleep deprived and stressed out. I was in a good mind state and able to make good decisions. I felt good in my everyday life, and didn't have any interest in the "escape" of drugs. If kids are staying up until 2 a.m. doing homework, these things are not the case. These teens are much more vulnerable to making bad choices and looking for an escape through substances. I think refraining from overloading kids with homework would help them be in a better state of mind when making these life decisions.
Heidi Henkel is a math tutor, dance teacher, fitness trainer and massage therapist who lives in Putney.