It's Time to Fall Back Into the School Schedule

Implement a Plan to Reset Children and Adolescents’ Sleep Patterns.

Posted Sep 05, 2012

As the new school year begins, families make many plans and changes in their daily routines. School clothes and supplies are bought, visits are made to schools to meet new teachers and arrangements for transportation from home to school are decided upon. For children and parents, one of the most important adjustments is to getting up earlier in the morning. Schedules of going to bed and getting up in the morning typically are much less structured during summer vacation. Children and adolescents may have gotten used to staying up much later at night and waking up later than during the previous school year. Moreover, the schedules may have been inconsistent, since it did not matter much whether one woke up at 7:00 am or 10:00 am. But the school schedule is strict and unforgiving. School begins early, bus routes run even earlier, and there are penalties for being tardy. In the afternoon and evening, family schedules must be adjusted to accommodate new after school activities and the inevitable homework assignments that come. Attaining a more disciplined schedule and routine is difficult, and it may be particularly hard for children to go to sleep and wake up earlier on school days. 

In a recent interview published by the American Psychological Association, I was asked to offer some suggestions for how parents and children can ease this challenging transition back to a school-year schedule. The full interview can be read at apa.org.

1. Our bodies perform best when we eat and sleep on consistent daily schedule. There are optimal times of day when we are more or less prepared for both of these essential functions. For sleep, internal signals to sleep and wake are similar in some respects to mechanisms that regulate hunger and thirst. The point is that given a relaxed schedule with no constraints on going to bed and waking up, most people settle into a particular pattern. The new school year demands that this pattern be altered suddenly over a few days. If an adolescent is used to staying up past midnight and sleeping until noon, the adjustment is likely to be very difficult. And oddly enough, waking earlier may be even easier than sleeping earlier. As most of us have experienced, while we can make ourselves wake up, often with alarm clocks, it is nearly impossible to make ourselves go to sleep when we are not sleepy. 

2. One way to reset the body’s clock is to wake up 15 minutes earlier each day during the week before school begins. During the week one would try to sleep a little earlier each night.

3.Since sunlight is a primary regulator of our body’s clock, getting exposure to sunlight in the morning is helpful. Opening the blinds upon awakening is often helpful, and if a parent can open them a half hour before the required wake time, that may be even better.

4. On the evening side of the day, late exposure to light can delay our body’s natural onset of sleepiness. Melatonin is a naturally produced substance that induces sleepiness, and its release is regulated partly by light. Recent research is suggesting that exposure to the light of television screens, computers, and smartphones may also delay nighttime sleepiness. Having children and adolescents suspend watching television and using other electronic devices with screens an hour or so before bedtime will help. Alternatively, reading in a somewhat dim light or engaging in some quiet activity will make it easier to go to sleep.

5. Late eating and snacking can also delay sleepiness. During sleep, metabolism slows down, and since metabolic functions are stimulated by food, it takes longer for the body to shift to sleep.

6. Caffeine in any form (soda; coffee, chocolate; energy drinks) should for obvious reasons be limited during the day and especially avoided during afternoons and evenings.

Sleepy children often have more difficulty learning new concepts and remembering them the next day. Further, insufficient sleep has been linked to behavior problems. Implementing changes such as these and then staying with them during the school year may reduce problems for students, teachers, and parents.