This past weekend, I delved into research about the impact sleep deprivation has on the cognitive abilities of students, and how in Horry County, we make it worse for the students who are already at greatest risk:
Here’s why. A lack of sleep has been related to all sorts of maladies, including obesity, heart disease, depression, impaired executive function – the ability to control emotions, set goals and make connections – and memory loss.
It translates into poor academic performance and impulsive behavior.
“Tired children can’t remember what they just learned, for instance, because neurons lose their plasticity, becoming incapable of forming the new synaptic connections necessary to encode a memory,” Merryman and Bronson wrote in “NurtureShock.” “A different mechanism causes children to be inattentive in class. Sleep loss debilitates the body’s ability to extract glucose from the bloodstream. Without this stream of basic energy, one part of the brain suffers more than the rest – the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for what’s called ‘Executive Function.’ ... A tired brain ... gets stuck on a wrong answer and can’t come up with a more creative solution, repeatedly returning to the same answer it already knows is erroneous.”
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Lack of sleep contributes heavily to the persistent achievement gap.
“If you compare their kindergarten sleep and third-grade tests, the lack of sleep in kindergarten predicts lower scores in third grade for black students and students in poverty,” Merryman told me.
What’s worse is that we have some of the earliest start times for students already facing myriad challenges. That’s why Galen Humphrey, who taught at the Horry County Education Center (the “alternative school” in Conway) for a year and a half, turned in his resignation.
There is more research on how we are doing exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing if we truly want to reach these kids.
Our lumping of “at-risk students” together, whether in academic tracks or in alternative schools, is worsening the problem.
It not only stigmitizes them, it makes it less likely they’ll begin forming the habits we are hoping they will.
A taste of that research:
Why would deviant talk lead to deviant behavior? And why did some kids talk about deviance while others didn’t? The answer Dishion reached is the most interesting thing about his research: If you want to understand why people do things, look for the reinforcers. Dishion and his colleagues coded not only the deviant talk of these kids, but also the reactions of their friends. He simply coded deviant and nondeviant talk and two possible reactions to each statement: pause or laugh. They found that the more laughs a boy got for what he said, the more he talked about that topic. In pairs where most of the laughs followed deviant talk, there was a great increase in the deviant talk. In statistical terms, 84 percent of the variance in deviant talk related to the rate of laughter for deviant talk. That is huge.
Even more interesting was the fact that the rate of reinforcement for deviant talk strongly predicted later delinquency. Boys whose friends approved of their talk of delinquent and violent acts were more likely to engage in these acts. Dishion called interactions like this “deviancy training.” In subsequent research he showed that simply letting at-risk kids get together raised the level of their misbehavior.
... Additional evidence has accumulated that raises serious questions about many of the things our society does in efforts to deal with at-risk or delinquent youth. We routinely put students who are doing less well academically on a different academic track than those who are doing well. In the process, we stigmatize them and bring them together, where they become friends and have little contact with students who embrace prosocial norms and behaviors. If at-risk kids have trouble in school, they are often transferred to alternative schools where the student body consists almost entirely of kids who experiment with drugs and other forms of risk taking. If they are arrested, they are locked up with other problem youth or treated in groups of adjudicated youth.
If we are serious about helping these kids - which ends up helping us all - we better rethink how we are treating them.