Saturday, 26 November 2011

To Sleep - Perchance To Dream

"To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there's the rub."

Hamlet (III, i, 65-68)
 Its no accident that by Act III of Hamlet, the title character is struggling to maintain his sanity. Not just haunted by his father's ghost, and beset by the machinations of his dysfunctional family, Hamlet is also suffering from serious sleep deprivation. While most of us never have to struggle with "a sea of troubles" like those faced by the Prince of Denmark, busy complex lives are a fact for 21st century learners. Both adults and students alike never seem to have enough time to get everything done. The demands and pressures can lead to disrupted lives where sleep quickly falls to the bottom of the priority list. Too often seen as an expendable optional activity, sleep is actually essential for maintaining good mental health.

Why we sleep is a hotly researched topic. There are many different theories as to why humans sleep. Whether it is to rest or regenerate the brain and body systems, or whether its just a biological quirk, what's not in dispute is that we all need adequate amounts of sleep, and that the amount needed can vary depending upon our age. Ten hours is a pretty good benchmark for school aged children. Slightly more for younger children, slightly less for teens, the amount can vary person to person. 

Until the 19th century sleep patterns basically followed the sun. The invention of  the electric light bulb changed everything. With lights, television and other electronic distractions available 24/7, sleep time became discretionary and optional. Its little wonder sleep deprivation is a primary source of disrupted learning. The Sleep Research Division at Harvard Medical School reports;

"When persons are sleep deprived, focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and people lose their ability to access previously learned information.

In addition, their interpretation of events may be affected. People lose their ability to make sound decisions because they can no longer accurately assess the situation, plan accordingly, and choose the correct behavior. Judgment becomes impaired.

Being chronically tired to the point of fatigue or exhaustion means that a person is less likely to perform well. Neurons do not fire optimally, muscles are not rested, and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized."

Sleep deprivation does not discriminate. Whether one is a learner or a teacher, the need for a good night's rest remains important. Education is a collaborative effort. Whether its exhausted educators or sleep deprived students, the result is still ineffective learning and increased frustration. In a world filled with diversions, new emphasis needs to be put on the importance of a good night's sleep and the discipline people need to exercise to ensure they get it. Adults need to set an example and provide guidelines for children. In her book "Different Learners, Identifying, Preventing and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems", educational psychologist Jane Healy identifies some common sense steps that can assist in ensuring proper sleep levels are achieved. Some of these include:
  1. Modeling appropriate routines - children model their behavior after the adults in their lives
  2. Establishing and sticking to regular bedtimes
  3. Establishing and maintaining a regular sleep routine
  4. Avoiding vigorous, exciting, frightening or highly physical activities directly before trying to go to sleep.
  5. Limiting evening screen time. Computers, cell phones and other electronic media should be turned off and kept out of the sleeping area. 
  6. Prior to bedtime face time should trump screen time every time. Engage in calming pleasant activities
  7. Make sleep and self care a top priority.
Although these suggestions are aimed at children they work well for adults too. Ironically, the internet contains dozens if not hundreds of sites with more ideas and information about the need for and value of adequate sleep - just limit your screen time to regular waking hours! 
The last of Healy's suggestions might be the hardest, yet most important. Self care cannot be an optional activity, nor can people assume that mind and body will rebound or recalibrate by default or through extended endurance of poor routines. Doing right by ourselves and our students takes planning, commitment and follow through. Or as Polonius might have put it;
"This above all: to thine own self be true". Getting a good night's sleep and helping others to do the same,  needs to be a priority for maintaining the health and mental sharpness of all learners.


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