Education is not a preparation for life but is life itself. - John Dewey

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sleep and Teens

Sleep is not only a biological necessity but also a physiologic drive. In today’s fast-paced world, though, sleep is often the first thing to go. … Adolescence is the time of greatest vulnerability from the standpoint of sleep.
Bill Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center, Stanford University

I joke that I didn’t sleep more than four hours straight for almost five years when my children were babies.  The truth isn’t far from that.  Most nights during that time I slept six hours a night but almost never uninterrupted.  I relied on micro-naps, carbs, and caffeine for my energy (what there was of it).  It was not the healthiest time in my life!

Now, I cherish – relish – my sleep time and I notice the difference when my sleep needs are not met.  I am less flexible and patient during the day.  I crave unhealthy foods (more than usual) and I make poor choices in how I handle stress and the many demands on my time.

The same is true for children.  A good night’s sleep is essential for children and teens to restore their neurobehavioral systems and to consolidate learning.  There is now evidence that a child’s need for sleep actually increases during puberty, and yet the average high school student reports an average of six hours of sleep on a school night (the MayoClinic recommends nine hours or more).  

A change in an adolescent’s circadian pattern (difficulty falling asleep early and difficulty waking early) signal a normal biological shift.  However, unlike 100 years ago, we now have multiple avenues for stimulation at night (electric lights, television, computers, telephones, texting, etc.) that further delay sleep.  Additionally, some teens (and even some tweens) are allowed to self-select their bedtime at a time when the planning/prioritizing/decision-making part of the brain (the frontal lobe) is quite immature. 

What about sleeping in on the weekends?  Unfortunately, sleeping late on weekends serves to further delay the circadian pattern creating a more dysfunctional cycle during the school week.

Some of the effects of sleep deprivation in adolescents are:  napping during the day, fatigue, stimulant use (caffeine, nicotine), difficulties with self-control (attention, emotion, and behavior) and motivation, missed school, irritability, and poor learning and memory consolidation.  If that weren’t bad enough, napping and stimulant use then contribute to more difficulty falling asleep which exacerbates the already dysfunctional cycle.

So what can parents do?  The following suggestions can be found in much of the literature concerning children and sleep issues.  I particularly like how Madeline Levine addresses the issue in her book “Teach Your Children Well:  Parenting for Authentic Success” in her section titled The Tasks of the Middle School Years.  You can even implement these suggestions with your pre-schooler.  Why wait until middle school to develop good habits?
  • No electronics at least a half hour before bedtime.  This includes television, computer, smartphones, mp3 players, tablets, and video games.  The light from these screens depresses melatonin production and can delay sleep.
  • Keep these electronics out of the bedroom.  A half hour before bedtime, you take ownership over the electronics.  This ensures that your child is not sneaking screen or networking time when she should be sleeping. 
  • No caffeinated drinks in the afternoon or evening.  Obviously, this includes drinks such as 5-Hour Energy.
  •  Have a consistent bedtime and evening ritual.  This can be tough especially with evening practices/lessons and homework.  Even if your pre-bedtime routine is only 20 minutes long (shower, reading, journaling), these external cues can help trigger the relaxation response and make for a smoother transition to sleep.
  • No social networking right before bedtime.  Besides the electronics issue (see above), there is the friendship drama issue.  It is extremely difficult for adolescents to disengage from these ongoing (throughout the night) conversations.  This is not relaxing nor healthy “sleep hygiene.”
  • Beware of overscheduling.  As Madeline Levine states:  “A moderate amount of extracurriculars certainly benefits kids.  But in order to be able to relax, to put the day on hold, kids need some clear space in their heads and clear time in their days.  If the above points on sleep seem daunting to you, the quiet before bedtime, for example, then your child is doing too much.  Leave some time every day for reflection and solitude.  Your child will sleep better and so will you.”
Model these techniques yourself – yes, shut down your electronics a half hour before bedtime as well!  Your children are watching your behavior intently.  Monitor your schedule, your evening routine, and the household activity and noise before bedtime. 

For more information on this subject, check out this Frontline program on adolescent sleep needs and how sleep affects learning and memory.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Some Bumps in the Road

I apologize for my recent lull in posting.  When work and life get busy, I don't always have time to blog.  However, I am recommitting to blogging even if my posts are short!

Today I met with two lower school students who are working on friendship skills.  I introduced the idea that friendships are like riding your bike on a trail - there are often obstacles in your path.  Every trail is going to have bumps and dips but if the obstacles are too big, you can't move forward.  The students described the obstacles that they have experienced and then drew on the board the size of these bumps.

There were some big bumps!  One was so big that the path was completely blocked.  The students talked about how with some friends, there were more bumps than with others.  Some bumps were much bigger with certain friends.  With other friends, it was much easier to just enjoy the ride with few obstacles to have to work around.

Here were the biggest obstacles for these students:

  • Not listening with respect.
  • Laughing AT people not WITH them.
  • Mocking and teasing.
  • Making excuses - not taking responsibility for your own behavior and actions.

We also talked about how, as in the case with these two students, friendships can start off with difficulty but then smooth out after some time and effort.  What makes for a smoother path?  These were their ideas:

  • Talk about your feelings with your friend.
  • Talk to the friend directly if you are having problems (instead of talking to everyone else but NOT your friend).
  • Care about your friend's feelings - no bragging, teasing, or mocking.
  • Take responsibility for your behavior - apologize if necessary and make amends.
  • Listen with respect, understanding, and empathy.

Great advice for us all!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talking With Your Child About Tragedy

I write this post with a deep and primal sadness.  I am sitting with the news of the Newtown killings.  Trying not to move too quickly into doing, thinking, expressing.  Trying to just feel and honor the sadness.

However, I have two children.  So I must do, think, and express.  My husband and I want to be their primary contacts for information and concerns before their peers and instead of youtube.  I want this to be a time when we share our sadness, reaffirm our love, and discuss the many ways we protect and care for each other.

Here are some resources that I have found helpful as a parent and a professional to navigate this difficult and heartrending terrain. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has an excellent guide for discussing the shooting with your child.  It’s straightforward and simple.  NPR also has a page of advice, which is brief but good.

If your children range in age from pre-school to grade school/middle school, tailor your general conversation to the youngest, not the oldest.  Have separate conversations with your older children.  Explain to them the need to handle this differently for the younger siblings.  Ask for their leadership and cooperation with this.

VAIS has posted this reassuring and instructive article from Drs. Robert Evans and Mark Kline.  If your child is in a dual-household family, share these resources so you can create a common approach and common language.  Make sure that you and your co-parent(s) can agree on basics – media exposure and creating a safe and loving environment. 

If necessary, please try to characterize the shooter in terms that are clear to children, both young and old.  Using a simple descriptor such as “extremely dangerous” is less ambiguous to children (and more accurate) than “angry,” “upset,” or “mentally ill.”  We can get angry or upset when they put glitter glue on the dog.  We may have family members or friends who are mentally ill but not dangerous.  Explaining this difference can help children with their fears and uncertainty.

You may choose to discuss how important it is for all of us to get help when we need it – with our emotions and our behaviors.  I have explicitly talked with the 3rd-5th graders this year about Hero Bystanders.  When we notice any kind of dangerous behavior, we must report the situation to a trusted adult.  Especially if there are weapons involved.  This is not tattling but reporting.  This is helping someone OUT of trouble rather than getting someone INTO trouble.  In our community, when anyone is showing behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others, we must get help right away.

Remind your children that Sabot actively teaches kids how to safely express emotions and that we make sure children and adults get help from professionals when they need it – for problems big and small.  Help your child identify adults to go to for help at home and at school. 

The American Counseling Association has posted a factsheet about children’s responses to trauma and disasters.  If your child’s reactions begin to disrupt his ability to function, please contact a community professional.  Sabot parents can email me with questions and concerns.

Even if we do not know the bereft families personally, we still grieve for the loss of life.  Create or participate in a personal or community ritual to frame your mourning.  Visit your place of worship for a prayer service, vigil, or just to light a candle.  Join with others to walk the labyrinth or to meditate.  Group rituals can strengthen our connections in our community while lifting our spirits.

We are so blessed to live around the James River – my favorite place to remember the unending nature of life.  Be in nature.  Find a way to ground yourself in what is and always will be.  

Share with your child some small things that comfort you:  drinking a cup of tea, snuggling with a pet, reading a favorite book, listening to or making music, spending time with a friend, or holding someone’s hand.

You may choose to light a candle in your home to honor the lives that were lost.  If your children wish to participate, they can place artwork, poetry, a special bit of nature, or a toy by the candle.

Be sad.  Express.  Love.  Connect.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Point of View

Once upon a time there were six blind men who all lived in the same town. One day the circus came to town and the men went to see the elephant. But how could they? The first man said, “We can feel him.”
 “That’s a great idea!” said the rest. 

So each man went to feel the elephant. 
The first man touched the elephant’s big, flat ear. He felt it move slowly back and forth. 
 “Oh” he said, “An elephant is like a giant fan!”

The second man touched the elephant’s leg. “Oh, an elephant is like a tree!”

The third man felt the tail and said, “No you are both wrong. The elephant is like a rope.” 

But the fourth man disagreed. He felt the elephant’s pointed tusk and said, “Ouch! An elephant is like a spear.”

“No” said the fifth man, “Can’t you tell an elephant is like a wall?” He was feeling the elephant’s huge side.

The sixth man grabbed hold of the elephant’s tusk. “You are all wrong! An elephant is like a snake!”

The men continued to argue, each one certain he was right. “It’s a fan.” “No, a tree.” “Surely a rope!” “No, it’s a snake!” “You’re wrong. I’m right!”

Finally they got tired of shouting at each other and they all went home. So none of them ever found out what an elephant really was.

I read this story to the 7th Graders last week as part of a series of guidance lessons on bias.  It generated a great discussion about perspective, assumptions, and judging.  Each character in the story clings to his own experience and each walks away with an incomplete understanding of the elephant and of each other's experience.

We reflected on how our experience may be different from someone else's in the same situation and how our truth may only be a part of the whole picture.  At which point, one student said, "That's like Plato's Cave."  The other students leaned in with interested, questioning expressions.  The student explained how the people in Plato's Cave were shackled to the cave wall and could only see the shadows of reality, never the true, authentic reality.  "They could never see what was really going on."

Wow.  I was impressed with this student's insight and I was equally impressed by the rapt, respectful attention of the other students.  

After we spent some time digesting this story and imagery, I described experiencing a house by looking through one window.  I can look through the window and see into a room but not see the whole room.  I certainly cannot see the whole house.  Each of us might look through a different window and have a completely different sense of what lies within the house.  

Possibly, if we all shared what we each see through our window, we can move closer to the truth about what lies within the entire house.  

Share your point of view honestly and bravely.  Honor and respect the perspective of others.  No small challenge for the typical middle school student.  No small challenge for any of us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sleepovers, Summer Camp, and Resilience

Paul Tough's book, "How Children Succeed," has me pondering how we encourage resilience in children.  I'm sure I will have many more posts on this subject, but I thought I would share an article from The Washington Post  by Carolyn Butler that I had filed away this past summer on sleepovers, summer camp, and resilience.

"One of the things that troubles me about this generation is that we want our children endlessly challenged academically, but we don’t seem to want their resilience challenged in other ways. You can’t know you’re resilient until your resilience is challenged. And resilience or grit is key because it’s what gets you through the hard times in life." 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For the past month or so, I have been visiting the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms talking about Bullying.  One concept that I've explored with the children has been the role of a bystander.  Who is a bystander?  How can a bystander make a difference?  When have you been a bystander and what happened?  What is the responsibility of a bystander?

Last week, I read "Wings" by Christopher Myers to the 5th graders.  I absolutely love Myers' collages and I thought that the class would also appreciate the dramatic tale of Ikarus Jackson.  They did.  We discussed the artwork, Ikarus and his wings, and the powerful impact of a bystander.

We talked about superpowers and how sometimes what makes us special, powerful even, can make us feel different.  The other kids (and adults) in the story took Ikarus' difference and used it as a tool for bullying.  But one bystander, with her courage and truth, celebrated Ikarus' wings.

What are your wings?  What is your superpower?  Has someone ever helped you when you had a tough time celebrating your differences?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Finding Stillness in One Moment

Have you felt it lately?  Maybe it crept in with the cooler weather, the high pressure slipping under a cold front.  It arrives without fail each autumn for me:  an ever-increasing tempo of obligations, expectations, and not-to-be-missed opportunities that snowball into Thanksgiving and then crash into the winter holidays.

My first line of defense is to just breathe.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Repeat. 

Breathe.  Relax the face.  The shoulders.  Breathe.  Let the world spin without me for one minute.  Maybe two.  Breathe.  Ground my feet.  Straighten my spine.  Find a lightness.

Breathe in peace.  Breathe out stress.  Breathe in expansion.  Breathe out confinement.  Breathe in acceptance.  Breathe out judgment.

I wake early in the morning to have my quiet moment of the day.  To sit with a cup of tea in the chilly darkness of the morning and connect with that which will always be, no matter what the day brings.  My breath.  This earth.  The stillness. 

I will carry this core of peace inside me throughout the commotion of the day.  Returning to it whenever I need it.  Returning to calmness.  To stillness.

I find that this stops the snowballing stress and I can find greater perspective, patience, and tolerance.

If you are interested in how mindfulness, meditation, and inward focus can benefit you or your children, please look into a wonderful upcoming opportunity:

On Saturday, November 10th, Joe Klein from Inward Bound Mindfulness Education is coming to Ekoji (3411 Grove Avenue) to hold a day retreat.  From 9am-4pm, there will be a retreat for adults.  From 6pm-10pm, there will be a teen event.

Ekoji offers a Family Mindfulness Meditation from 1pm-2pm this Sunday, October 14th with a Teen Mindfulness Meditation following from 2:30pm-3:30pm.  This is offered monthly.  What a great way to establish a family practice of meditation!

If right now you are saying to yourself, “That’s fine for others, but not for me.  I have no time and no quiet in my life,” I offer you this video on One Moment Meditation.  Try it out …