School has created a national sleep crisis

Sometimes I look back at my life before I started homeschooling and luckily, and yesterday I came across this post, 8 Tips for anger management. It describes what was a typical morning getting ready for school: I try so hard, my kids fight and cry, I scream at them. There are 250 comments weighing in on the crazy morning rush to get kids out of the house.

I am so happy to not have to do that morning routine anymore. I am so happy to not wake my kids up before they are ready to get up. I’m so relieved to not rush them through breakfast and jump to someone else’s rhythms instead of our own.

So the research on sleep deprivation really resonates with me. Because the act of rousing kids out of sleep every morning feels totally unnatural to me. And, in fact, it’s unnatural to them, too.

How do you know if your pre-teen is getting enough sleep? If they can go to bed easily at night and wake up easily each morning. It’s an important metric because sleep deprivation in elementary school students makes them low performers.

Sleep deprivation is much more serious among teens. The research about sleep deprivation among is unequivocal: Teens need more sleep than they can get if they go to school before 8am. We have known this for the last twenty years, but we can’t figure out what to do about it.

Because while we were learning how teens need more sleep, we were still sending women into the full-time work force. The conflict there shows how school has become not something the state needs in order to turn kids into factory workers, but is something parents need so both parents can go to work.

Parents have too much vested interest in getting their kids out of the house in time to go to work, so no one wants to mess with the start time of school. And schools have too much vested interest in kids getting high test scores, so homework loads keep increasing which means kids lose more sleep.  And kids want to have their own interests and their own life when they are teenagers and the only time to do that is after school, so kids are hesitant to start school later if that means losing all their free time.

So everyone decides that it’s okay that teens don’t get enough sleep so they can go to school.

This decision directly affects the teen suicide rate. And suicides are higher when teens are in school. Google teen suicide and sleep deprivation and you get enough research for a dissertation.

What if we could link time spent playing video games to the teen suicide rate as closely as we can link school start times to the suicide rate? Video games would be banned, of course. Yet school is sacred.

This sacred cow syndrome doesn’t just affect teens in school. It affects our work life as well. As school hours got longer, and homework takes all night, we raised a generation of kids who have no problem taking Adderral off-label to work long hours. Society tells kids that sleep deprivation is worth it in order to do more! work harder! score higher!

So kids keep doing it in their adult life. And they encourage their kids to do it again, in school.

It takes brave people to break this cycle. People to say they will not be measured by destructive scales of achievement. People who say they will not sacrifice their sleep and their sanity to be part of the mainstream. It’s uncomfortable being outside the mainstream. But it’s more uncomfortable pretending everything is okay so you can buy into a system that is not helping you, your kids, or society.

39 replies
  1. Betsy
    Betsy says:

    When my three year old gets up in the morning is when I try to wrap my head around forcing him out the door in the morning…and I can’t.

  2. Sarah m
    Sarah m says:

    “Google teen suicide and sleep deprivation and you get enough research for a dissertation.
    What if we could link time spent playing video games to the teen suicide rate as closely as we can link school start times to the suicide rate? Video games would be banned, of course. Yet school is sacred.”

    Those are great points. It’s 8:41Am, and I’m still in my bed and pjs (I’ve been up since 5:45 studying and working, my husband leaves at 6:15) while my kids just woke up and are happily playing a game in their room, in their pjs. I am so grateful we get to enjoy our time on our terms. The longer we homeschool, the longer the “Pro” list gets. The “Con” list just stays the same. My mornings are one of my favorite ‘pros’.
    Sarah M

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It really is true that the longer you homeschool the longer the pro list grows while the con list remains the same.

      It’s because society barrages us with why school is good without having had any experience with something that isn’t school.


  3. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    It’s the same with the workplace too. Why does everyone have to sign-in at 8.30 or 9am?

    Plus we have far too many people preaching about the virtues of getting up early in the morning. Our nursery rhymes are even built on that – early bird catches the worm, early to bed early to rise…
    The focus is on early, never on healthy

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      OMG! makes me want to pull my hair out! I can’t get any work done in the firs half of the day. All the productivity “tips” have become so annoying because it’s a matter of my brain just not functioning.
      Oh, but 6-8 pm rolls around and I am on fire!

  4. p
    p says:

    This has been an amazing week for your education blog, thank you so much! And slow, sweet mornings are in my top 5 reasons I love homeschooling.

  5. Letitia
    Letitia says:

    I’m glad I found this website and subscribed. I just got off the “education” roller-coaster last Fri. I took my 6th grader out of private school, after almost bullied into putting her on medication. Among other things, she has anxiety, but school is making her anxious. Put her on meds for anxiety, or remove the source of anxiety? Hmmm… Seems like a no brainer to me. Wish I would’ve done it sooner! The bad part, I’m an educator, who doesn’t buy into the current system. It doesn’t make sense. I was just having a conversation last night about our current school system being built on the outdated agricultural system that we are no longer a part of. For the most part, school is one BIG DAYCARE! There is no way around that fact.
    I love these honest facts… I wish more people would accept the truth, so we could do something more effective.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      congratulations on making the leap! I also wish more people would just accept the facts you lay out. You’re right that we can’t have productive deiscussions about school when everyone’s in denial!


    • Katherine
      Katherine says:

      I second that congrats! I’m a nurse and I see over and over how kids are being medicated because there is something “wrong” with the kid, when it’s the SCHOOL that is causing the problem. Bravo!

  6. JML
    JML says:

    This made me cry. I’m a female INFJ breadwinner and I hate the morning rush. Hate it! I have to start every weekday not being a nice person. Bit by bit it’s killing me. I’m about to have a nervous breakdown (if I’m not already). Things need to change. But that step is definitely terrifying!

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Do you think there could be a correlation between personality types and being a morning person or not? I’m also an INFJ, and definitely not a morning person. (…always felt guilty about that.)I do come to life at night though. My hubby is an ESTJ and an amazing morning person who pops out of bed & cooks hot breakfasts every day! Could it be the way we are made and not just habits?

  7. Erin
    Erin says:

    I remember when all these studies were released and then discussing it with my parents, public high school teachers. They agreed that teens needed their sleep but there was no way they wanted to be teaching until 5 or 6 in the evening. Pretty sure hours won’t change thanks to the teacher unions and you know, screw the childrens’ wellbeing. Fast forward to my own children and I’m happy to report I’m typing this in my pajamas and my preteens are still asleep. I have no problem going against the grain. Especially since I’m in such good company! Thanks Penelope.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      It’s not only parents — ask a teenager, many will tell you that they are too busy to be in school until 4pm or later and would rather trudge in numb with drowsiness at 7:30am than stay later in the afternoon. I realize homeschooling is being presented as the alternative here, but the problem should be addressed for those who prefer to be in school as well. If we care about kids’ health and well being, school should start later, regardless of what teachers, students, and parents gravitate to because they don’t want to adapt to change.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        If you let kids get more sleep, obviously they have to give something up. Just like adults – you have to give up some time in your day to get more sleep. It makes total sense that kids would rather give up time when they’re in school that time they are doing an activity they are passionate about.


  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I love sleep, my husband calls me a bum for it… whatevs.

    For me, I don’t feel brave for homeschooling. It’s a natural extension of who I have always been; which is doing the right thing (ie. always going the speed limit, stopping to let pedestrians cross the street, opening doors for the elderly or keeping the door open for the people exiting behind me…among a thousand other things) . I’m used to being a trendsetter, not sure why exactly. Maybe I’m afraid of being left behind in the technology age…

    Getting up at 6AM for school didn’t make me angry… it’s what started me thinking that the whole thing was crazy, traditional school is crazy, and I don’t like anyone telling me what to do or how to do it or when I can take vacations or that my child can’t leave school even though it’s over because some other kid didn’t put their head down on the desk when the teacher told the whole class to do it…

    Call it daycare, crowd control, or a holding place for kids until they turn 18… it’s just not for me… somehow school got stuck in this weird time paradox where society is all about technology and the future but schools are based on something completely different and irrelevant. It’s old and stale, I’m all about fresh and exciting and new.

    So I don’t feel brave for homeschooling, I feel right.

  9. Kevin Finch
    Kevin Finch says:

    My daughters went to school for one year. I was a teacher who left the field to homeschool my daughters last year, and the topic of this post was a major reason. My relationship with my daughters became yelling at them in the morning to get out of bed and ready for school, and then yelling at them again in the evening to get to bed so that they wouldn’t be tired the next morning. It was awful. I remember saying things like, “Hurry up and eat your breakfast or else I am going to be late to my meeting!” Imagine me, an adult, making my young children feel guilty about wanting more sleep or a few more minutes to finish their breakfast. Disgusting. Homeschooling isn’t easy for me to do. There are tough days, but I have been on the other side, and where we are now, as a family, is bliss. I need posts like this to remind me of that.

  10. lyndap
    lyndap says:

    I believe nothing is absorbed and learned in a meaningful way in school before 10am and even that might be pushing it. It might be after lunch where kids learn more.

  11. Kelsey Langley
    Kelsey Langley says:

    I was just explaining to someone the relief of not adapting my family’s schedule to other institutions’ schedules. It was kind of weird to explain to someone who already raised her kids in public school and very obviously didn’t understand how amazing the freedom of homeschooling is. As someone else said… the list of Pro’s for homeschooling gets longer the longer you do it.

    Another thought… When the shootings happened at Newtown and so many parents didn’t have another moment with their kids after school drop-off, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of those 20 families had had a hectic morning that led to arguing and anger before dropping off their little one. How incredibly sad for them. Obviously it’s sad anyway, but some mornings in our house when we did our only year of public school were awful…

  12. Tommy Kean
    Tommy Kean says:

    It sounds pretty selfish.
    Homeschooling will not teach the kids how to socialize.
    Im not saying you are not able to teach you kids how to behave, but my guess is, that most people are not and you can’t teach them everything, they need their own experiences.

    • karelys
      karelys says:


      dang! those kids who lived before the school era …. how did they even do it!? How did they even raised families and businesses and manage break throughs in technology and medicine?

  13. Linda
    Linda says:

    Methinks that work created a national sleep crisis, and school was charged with aiding and abetting.

    I pulled my boy out of school and moved my business to my house. We sleep in until 9. Life is good. Now if only I had a farm…..

  14. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    I used to get up early to write. Then I took an Air Force course for high-altitude checkout. The dumbed down section on sleep said that deep sleep repairs your body and REM sleep repairs your mind.

    That was the end of shorting myself on sleep.

  15. Tilly
    Tilly says:

    I pulled my son from school after thanksgiving break. He is only in kindergarten and we both had enough! He just told me the other day that he does not want to go back.

    We live close to his old school. We drove by there last night around 5pm and I noticed a few cars entering the drive. It dawned on me that they were probably parents picking their kids up from after care (which is a big free for all there). It mad me sad to think that these kids had been in that awful environment for 6 hours, then had to endure another 2 hours of utter chaos with god knows how many kids (it’s a huge school).

    I’m all for women’s rights, but why let someone else, especially a school raise your kids? I understand that a a lot of families need 2 incomes, but we found a way to make it work when I had my son. I would be heartbroken leaving him all day, everyday. Another part of the problem is our country being so screwed up in the first place. Families didn’t need two incomes in the 50’s and I bet there were less issues with childhood behavior.

    Ok, rant over :)

    I love the honesty on your blog Penelope! You say what we are all thinking but are too scared to say out loud for fear of offending people who can admit these things to themselves yet.

  16. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Penelope, this is so true! If I didn’t know you live in America and if I read it in Chinese, I would have thought you were talking about the Chinese education system.

    Although I have no experience with the American education system, I somehow suspect it that the Chinese is far worse. The school bags of the Chinese kids are so heavy that many of them use baggage trolleys nowadays. It can easily weight more than 10 kg (22 pounds+). And homework, well, it’s even worse. There is a kind of energy drink or supplement, targeted at parents with school kids, esp. teens, that keeps the kid awake and alert at night so they can finish their homework. It is not just homework from school, but they get a lot from after-school tutorials, too. It is crazy!

    • Gwen
      Gwen says:

      I think the heavy bags of schoolbooks are universal. When I was in grade school in the USA (about ten years ago), there was a big fad for backpacks with wheels on the bottom and pull-up handles, like a suitcase, so you could take it off and roll it if your back started to hurt.

  17. MBL
    MBL says:

    In South Korea kids take pillows to school that strap to their arms so they can nap comfortably at their desks since they spend all of their time at school or the after school schools, hagwons.

    Don’t forget about the benefits at the other end of the day for the other homeschooling parent. If our daughter had to get up at 6:30 for school, she would have to be in bed by 8:00 at the very latest. With traffic, sometimes my husband doesn’t get home until after 6:00. Even though we shoot for 9 or 9:30 for lights out, if they are working on some art project or game or something that goes until 10:00, that okay. If we had to fit dinner, homework, and bath into the 2 hours that they would have…yuck.

  18. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Great post. I am well familiar with this problem. My 9 year old sleeps 11-12 hours a night, because he needs to. Find a kid in public school who does. If he were still there, he wouldn’t either; we’d be hustling him through breakfast and out the bus stop at 7 something, and keeping him up after dinner trying to remediate the crappy school instruction and do homework.

    Ah yes, homeschooling – so limited, so few chances for socialization. Here’s our schedule today:

    8:30: wake up, watch How Do They Do It with dad over breakfast, then read his Agatha Christie.
    10:00: swim class, followed by open swim with a dozen other homeschoolers
    12:00: lunch with a grownup friend, talk about our wives’ careers and our kids
    1:30: science class with five other homeschoolers
    4:00: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
    5:30: practice violin at home
    7:00: mom comes home, dinner
    8:30: bedtime

    Poor kid, this isolation won’t teach him to socialize or provide him with his own experiences. He’d be better off spending the day in a squadron of desks doing busywork beneath his ability level, innit?

    There’s only one thing missing from PT’s post: how much of the apparent epidemic of ADHD is really sleep deprivation in disguise? I’m not saying ADHD isn’t a real thing; I believe it is. However, I also think that the majority of kids who get diagnosed with ADHD and given (basically) speed to remedy it are suffering primarily from sleep deprivation (which the speed isn’t helping).

  19. joy
    joy says:

    agree, one of my favorite benefits I noticed after taking the kids out of school and worldschooling them, they can sleep as much as they want/need

    • Ellen
      Ellen says:

      “World schooling” – what a great phrase and so much more accurate than “homeschooling.” I plan on using it from now on. Thanks.

      • joy
        joy says:

        Ellen, I use the term ‘worldschooling’, since we travel 6-9 months a year, but it could be used in stead of ‘himeschooling’ too…

  20. Mark
    Mark says:

    We (two teens and I) start school at 7:30AM. We’re done around 11:30AM. They love having the rest of the day ahead of them by the time their friends are having lunch. It works really well for us.

  21. Anastasia @ eco-babyz
    Anastasia @ eco-babyz says:

    You said it. Exactly what I think except you actually have the guts to say it. If I would put something like this on my blog, I would be ATTACKED, because people are so defensive when they see that what they are doing really is backwards.
    I just LOVE our mornings. It doesn’t mean they are completely easy. I wake up really early so I can work before the kids wake. Then they wake up whenever they want, usually 9:30, and we have a cuddle fest for half an hour or so! :) The BEST part of my day! Then we are ready for breakfast and learning.

    I remember how much I absolutely HATED waking up early during my school years and being forced on a schedule. It’s a total myth that it “prepares you for the real world”. B.S. Every person is different and to make everyone function by force at 7 am is ridiculous. I’m so happy my kids don’t have to deal with this kind of nonsense and can get healthy amounts of sleep.

  22. Candi
    Candi says:

    The sleep thing was one of the main starting points for our decision to homeschool. Makes no sense to wake up a sleeping child. None at all. Our 8 year old was having major behavior challenges at home (not at his homeschool classes) and the doctor recommended a sleep study. Turns out he has severe sleep apnea. I could not imagine waking him up for school after basically no sleep. Even with a child who has no sleep disorder it is just mean to wake them up when they clearly need to be sleeping.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      Maybe, instead, it’s clear that they need to be going to sleep earlier.

      I think what you meant to write is that it makes no sense to wake up *your* sleeping child. I’m not sure you have enough information to apply your preference universally. My daughters, for example, have more than enough time to get 9+ hours of sleep by 7AM. It makes a great deal of sense, to us, for them to get up at that time. What wouldn’t make sense, for us, is to go over our school material twice simply because their sleep patterns happened to be different.

      I don’t know what ages you’re talking about when you say “child,” but do you think it is “mean” that children are woken up to do chores on a farm, for example?

  23. Jane
    Jane says:

    I don’t see what the time school starts has to do with the problem. If school started later families would just go to bed later. It seems the solution is to just be less busy.

    Sleep is one of those basics that you don’t do without. What parent wouldn’t make sure their child was getting enough to eat? Then why wouldn’t you make sure they got enough sleep?

    I would never over schedule my children. My teens go to sleep at 8pm and my younger children go to sleep at 6pm. We all get up at 6:30 happy and ready to take on the day.

  24. Laura
    Laura says:

    My homeschooled son graduated from college magna cum laude recently, and I thought I would check out what current homeschoolers are talking about. We were unschoolers. Your confidence in homeschooling is valid.

    The sleep thing was a big reason for us too. Some people cannot change their circadian rhythms, and cannot get to sleep before midnight no matter how early they have gotten up all week. Getting up at 7 AM caused my son to be run down and catch every virus and bacterial infection he came in contact with. His health improved greatly when we pulled out of regular school.

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