I recently had a student in my office who has been struggling to get to school on time. Tardies are generally a short and positive conversation where I ask students to walk me through their after school, evening, and morning routines. Together we make two outlines, one of their current routine, and a second of an adjusted schedule to help get them to school on time. Usually this means having a conversation about time management and then bringing their family into the conversation too.
This one particular student is enrolled in the maximum number of advanced classes permitted at our school, playing a school sport, and is also committed to an instrument. I could see that she had a lot on her plate and her eyes welled up with tears when we talked about what time she goes to bed.
“I usually go to bed at 1:30 or 2:00am because I have to get my homework done.”
“Oh wow, that is really late. I can see how waking up for school on time would be difficult,” I said. “What time do you usually start your homework?”
She explained her schedule a little bit more to me. It sounded like she had a two hour window after school that she could use for homework instead of waiting to get started at 10pm.
“Would it be possible for you to do some homework at school during the day and then finish up when school gets out before you go to swim practice?”
From here her demeanor totally changed.
“Fine! I won’t sleep at all. My homework is way more important than sleep!”
She was really upset and outbursts like this were not in her character. I could tell that she has been carrying a lot for some time.
“It sounds like to me you have a lot going on. This isn’t usually like you, and I am sorry it is hard right now,” I tried to validate. “Your health is the most important thing, and sleep is a big part of that. You are worthy of rest.”
She looked at me pointedly through tears. I could see the thoughts running through her mind.
“Coach RG is crazy. If I don’t do my homework, I won’t get good grades. If I don’t have good grades, I won’t get into a good college and then I am a failure.”
My heart goes out to her because she is living a paradox created by the College Application Industrial Complex. Rachel Simmons, Author of Enough As She Is, says “the Complex demands that students excel at absolutely everything, so they can craft themselves as perfect specimens worthy of college admission” (1). It is an impossible standard and expectation.
When a student is in so much distress that it causes an outburst of frustration in my office, I know that it is time for a conversation about putting her health first and needing to lighten their load.
After some silence and breathing between the two of us, I tried to explain to a flustered teenager that we would work together with our school counseling team to support her and lighten her course load if needed. We need to prioritize her physical and mental health.
She was not thrilled about this and unfortunately not in a place to hear it. I totally understand when this happens and don’t take it personally. It is hard to gain perspective when you are 16 years old and feeling the pressure.
In the larger picture, my concern is that teens like my student are constantly having to choose between rest and getting ahead. Dr. Frances Jensen writes in her book The Teenage Brain that teenagers need more sleep than any other population for their brain development. On average the teenage brain needs over nine hours of sleep per night (The Teenage Brain, 89), which is more sleep than the average adult needs. Rest is part of their growth process. Not just for brain development, but also to be able to spur creativity and interest in learning new things. We need to have conversations with teens about the value of rest and how we can normalize needing downtime.
Right now it is socially acceptable to be overworked and over scheduled. I have seen that many students feel the pressure to collect A’s and accolades as a way to solidify their futures. Productivity or how busy someone is should not dictate self worth or someone’s value. We have to remind teens that their worth is inherent. If they are sacrificing themselves and their sleep to prove to colleges they should be admitted, it is up to supportive adults to help them remember it is the system that is broken, not themselves.
Going back to my student in my office, she was not ready to hear this perspective. My plan is to have a follow up conversation with her. If she is still not yet ready to make the adjustments in her schedule to prioritize the teenage sleep cycle, it is my hope that she will at least feel seen and supported in her struggles as she navigates the College Application Industrial Complex. Life lessons are learned over time. I can’t learn their lessons for them, but I am happy to plant the seeds.