For Kids, All Work Won’t Work


If the worst thing that all work and no play does is make Jack a dull boy, then Jack is luckier than most. For many American youngsters too much school work is making them overweight, out of shape, and dangerously sleep-deprived.

With over 55 million students enrolled in grades K to 12, it’s fair to say that some American schools are succeeding in finding a balance between scholastics and health. But the trend lines are troubling.

What if an adult business executive described this routine: I work a full shift during the day, and then I bring home at least 5 hours of work in the evening; I get about 20 percent less sleep than experts recommend; my lunch is grabbed during a 30-minute dash between assignments; I’ve eliminated my daily hour of physical conditioning.

This exec would be counseled that his life and career are at great risk. As the headline on a recent Wall Street Journal advice column put it: ‘‘If You Need to Work Better, Maybe Try Working Less.’’

Why do we treat students differently? Is it because many public schools are overly focused on one-size-fits-all scholastic standards? Is it because parents are obsessed with college competition? Is it because budget cuts have stripped away physical education programs and other after-school activities? If you answered ‘‘all of the above,’’ we’re on the same page.

I put pencil to paper to compute the scheduling conundrum that faced my 17-year-old son during his junior year. According to Brown University’s research, he should get between 9 and 9.25 hours of sleep each night. To arrive at school on time, he must wake up no later than 6:15 a.m., so he should be asleep by 9 p.m.

At his well-funded, highly ranked public high school in central California he is offered no physical education classes. He is given 35 minutes for lunch, but school clubs use this precious break period for meetings, thus squeezing the actual meal time to a mad race. Although the school sets homework rules for most classes, it refuses to provide any guidelines for advanced placement and honors courses. On any given night, that means he might have an hour of work per subject — over five hours total.

Back to my chart. If he leaves school immediately after his last class, he can be home by 3:45 p.m. (although many classmates are not so lucky). He now has five hours and 15 minutes of waking time left, and over five hours of homework.

Can he spend, say, 30 minutes playing outside? Can we allow him 45 minutes for dinner with the family? Should he do any chores around the house? Is a single TV program or video game completely out of the question? Something — indeed, everything — has to give.

The crux of this scheduling problem would seem to be the sleep requirement. If my son could get by on 20 percent less sleep he could probably make it all work. But according to Judith Owens of Brown, just 2.5 percent of the population needs less sleep than average. ‘‘The problem,’’ she told The New York Times, ‘‘is that 95 percent of us think we’re in that 2.5 percent.’’ She advises parents to assume their kids need the full amount of sleep until it is proven otherwise.

When it comes to homework, Duke University’s widely accepted research shows that students do, in fact, achieve more when homework is part of their scholastic routine — but only to a point. That point, according to researchers, comes at about two hours per night in 12th grade.

In communities where competition for good grades and a ticket to a big-name college is keen, parents are often hooted out of the room for suggesting that homework be kept to a reasonable limit, that time be found in the school day for all students to get some exercise, and that good nutrition must be more than just a catch phrase.

Mental and physical fitness need not be mutually exclusive in our schools. While it is generally acknowledged that American students need to achieve more to compete national and globally, all work and little play is not the lesson.

‘‘Youth is wasted on the young,’’ observed George Bernard Shaw. Increasingly, we are requiring youth to be wasted by the young as well.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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