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May 9, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 26

Give Teens More Downtime and Support with Time Management

Research on adolescent development stresses the need for sleep, playtime, downtime, and family time. However, many teenagers struggle to find enough time to fit these essentials into busy schedules chock full of extracurriculars, academics and tutoring outside of school, demanding course loads and homework, chores, family responsibilities, paid work, and commutes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teenagers get between eight and ten hours of sleep each night. At Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, we have surveyed over 145,000 high school students from high-performing high schools during the last 15 years, including more than 21,000 since the start of the 2018–19 school year. In our data, students report getting an average of six and a half hours of sleep each night. Fewer than 19 percent of high school students report getting at least eight hours, and fewer than 4 percent report getting at least nine hours. In Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker notes that sleep deprivation is associated with a range of negative health outcomes—including decreased immune system response, heightened irritability and anxiety, and over- or under-eating—and negatively affects both learning and creativity. Further, the final sleep cycle (approximately 90 minutes) prepares the brain for future learning and to store previously learned knowledge, so it is doubly problematic for teenagers to miss out on those last couple of hours.
Among high school students we've surveyed so far this school year, the average homework load is 2.8 hours per night. It increases to 3.2 hours for students enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course. While research on the benefits and drawbacks of homework is complex, researchers note that there seems to be a significant drop-off in effectiveness for high school students once they do more than two hours of homework.
Average Hours of Homework for Students Taking No AP Classes
Source: From Challenge Success-Stanford Surveys of School Experiences, 2018. Stanford, CA: Author. Copyright 2018 by Challenge Success. Reprinted with permission.
Average Hours of Homework for Students Taking One or More AP Classes
Source: From Challenge Success-Stanford Surveys of School Experiences, 2018. Stanford, CA: Author. Copyright 2018 by Challenge Success. Reprinted with permission.
Of our survey population, 59 percent of high schoolers feel that "lack of sleep" is a major stressor in their lives. Another 52 percent say the same for a "lack of time to play, relax, or be with friends and family." Fifty-nine percent say they have "too much homework" (and only 2 percent say they have "too little homework").
Major Sources of Stress for Students
Source: From Challenge Success-Stanford Surveys of School Experiences, 2018. Stanford, CA: Author. Copyright 2018 by Challenge Success. Reprinted with permission.
What does this data say about what students need from school? Students need more time. Time to sleep. Time to relax. Time to grow up. Time to reflect. We know that many busy students have longer working hours than the adults in their lives. Schools can help create more time for students by reducing workloads and supporting students to take on a balanced and appropriate course load.
Creating and maintaining balance in students' lives isn't just on schools; it's on parents and families, too. Over half of our survey respondents report spending time—usually more than an hour per day—on outside academic programs, and the average student spends over 10 hours per week on extracurriculars. About 10 percent of students are enrolled in more than 20 hours of extracurriculars weekly.
Parents, families, and students can and should think carefully about the commitments they make to sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars, as well as tutoring, test prep classes, and other academic enrichment programs. No one thing is likely to cause overload, but the combination of several contributes to the lack of free time and time for sleep that so many students experience.
Schools can also help students develop better study habits. "Procrastination or time management" is a major source of stress for 55 percent of high school students who take our survey. Eighty-one percent of students admit to multitasking when they do their homework (36 percent are on social media and 28 percent are watching TV, Netflix, YouTube, or some other video platform), which no doubt slows their progress. School can and should do more to explicitly teach study habits and skills, even to high schoolers, rather than assume that they already have mastered these skills in elementary and middle school.

Two Tools

At Challenge Success, we find two tools especially helpful for addressing issues of time management. The first is a time scheduling worksheet, for which students and parents collaborate to fill in all of their weekly obligations. We recommend blocking off 9 hours per day for sleep, time for eating meals and personal hygiene, plus an hour of free or family time each day. After adding in the school day and any other necessary activities, students and parents fill in the rest of their week with homework, enrichment activities, and extracurriculars. Often families find that their children are committed to more than 24 hours, each day. This worksheet can help start a conversation about where and what to cut from busy schedules.
The second is an in-class homework campaign, which has been revelatory for a number of our partner schools. For a week, the school sets aside substantial blocks of class time for homework, in place of normal instruction. Often, teachers gain insights into how much variability there is in student homework completion—an assignment designed to take 15 minutes might take one student 5 minutes, and another 45—as well as a sense of how many students can and cannot actually complete the homework without help. Meanwhile, students often learn that they are much more efficient when they focus on their homework continuously for a good chunk of time; an assignment that takes an hour in a distracting setting at home might be done in 20 focused minutes at school. In short, an in-class homework campaign can be a step toward scaffolding time management skills, as well as toward reducing homework loads and freeing up students' time for more relaxation, play, and sleep.
Students need more sleep, more downtime, more playtime, and more family time. School may not be able to give all those things to students directly, but it can help.

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