Sleepless in San Mateo But Modeling Better Habits

BY KEVIN SKELLY/School Administrator, May 2018

Even though the school board’s 2016 attempt to move back the school start by 30 minutes in San Mateo, Calif., was unsuccessful, Superintendent Kevin Skelly (standing) says the district benefited in several significant ways.
In our zeal to achieve, to learn and to do more, sleep can be a casualty. We know the value of sleep, especially the clarity of mind and improved physical performance that come with it. And yet it is one of the first sacrifices we make at the altar of modern success, both as adults and, perhaps more damagingly, for our children.

Many teenagers wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor. They boast of how little sleep they are getting, how busy they are and how many activities they are packing into their lives. One of my favorite high school students goes as far as to call sleep a waste of time in her frenetic world. And who are our young people’s models in this regard? We adults!

I once heard a talk about difficult conversations during which the speaker recommended “HALTing” before one proceeds with something. That means figuring out whether you or the person you are confronting is Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Our decision-making ability is so impaired by fatigue. Teenagers, with their impulsivity and developing moral compasses, are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of sleep deprivation.

A Board Initiative
Given sleep’s central role in the social, emotional and physical health of our students, school leaders have a responsibility to promote its value and support its acquisition.

In the fall of 2016, the board of education in our 9,000-student high school district in the San Francisco Bay Area, with my full support, made a big push to move the starting time of school back 30 minutes a day. The decision was made in recognition of the research that shows students’ more typical nocturnal tendencies are unsupported by earlier school start times. We made a 30-minute later start time an annual district goal.

Despite our strong push and deep engagement, significant resistance from parents, students and staff scuttled our campaign for starting later than the 8 a.m. opening bell time for our high schoolers. Traffic congestion in the morning was raised as a major issue by the objectors, but so were family work routines, students’ after-school activities and jobs, and the mismatch between working staff and our proposed schedules.

Still Some Value
Despite the fact we didn’t achieve our goal, four positive outcomes emerged from our efforts.

First, our survey results pointed to homework’s time demands as a big challenge for students. This year we have a committee reviewing the research on homework and suggesting a rewrite of our existing board direction in this area.

Second, we moved weekly staff collaboration times to the beginning of the day and class start times back once a week. Now students have at least one day a week when they can sleep in while staff work schedules are unchanged.

Third, we moved the times of many interscholastic athletic contests later, in response to family surveys that brought up concerns about how much class time students missed because of athletic events.

Finally, our community has become far better educated about the value of sleep. We shared widely the best research on the value of a good night’s rest for school-aged children as well as the results of our own surveys of students. This is what I wrote, in part, to our community: “The over 3,000 students who completed the survey reported that they believe (correctly) that they NEED between 8 and 9 hours of sleep, but report that they get, on average, a full two hours less than this. … We will continue to explore ways to help students get more sleep … and develop other healthy habits. At the same time, as first teachers and ‘sleepers,’ what you do as a family and what you model is vastly important.”

Personal Impact
Perhaps it is because I am growing older and moving slower that I enjoy a good night’s sleep and acknowledge its benefits more than ever. I am gentler to those whom I love, more patient with those with whom I struggle and a considerably better listener and problem solver if I am rested.

Different people need different amounts of sleep and sleep differently. But I don’t know any teenagers who can make it without sufficient sleep for more than a few days. While it sometimes made for stressful nights, there were many rewards for ensuring my kids went to sleep at a decent hour, turned off the computer and worked productively on their homework so that sleep could be, what Shakespeare called, “great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

Some of my fondest and most vivid memories spring forth from those times when I am rested. As summer nears, consider some good, long nights of sleep and perhaps a few afternoon naps thrown in for good measure!

KEVIN SKELLY is the superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District in San Mateo, Calif.