Expert Advice: Good Timing is Everything for Gradeschoolers

Michael Breus PhD - chronotypes

Michael Breus PhD

Dr. Breus, in your new bookThe Power of When,” you state that most grade school-aged children have Bear chronotypes. What does that mean—and why is timing so important for this age group?

While adults’ biological clocks typically fall into one of four chronotypes, Dolphins, Lions, Bears or Wolves, most elementary and middle school-aged children have Bear chronotypes. This means that they have high sleep drives and that their body clocks are closely aligned with the rise and the fall of sun.

Timing is everything when it comes to elementary and middle school kids. There are good times for kids to get up, learn, do their homework, play sports and go to bed—and there are bad times.  One of the biggest mistakes that I see parents make is trying to get a young child to adapt to the parents’ time schedule.  This almost always leads to exhausted children and frustrated parents.  In my experience, scheduling activities to synch with the natural ebbs and flows of children’s chronotypes leads to happier and healthier families.

What advice do you have for getting Bears out-of-bed and off to school in the morning?

Because most gradeschoolers’ chronotypes are aligned with the sunrise and sunset, parents may wish to have them sleep with the curtains or blinds open, which will waken them more easily by allowing light into the room. If they don’t wake up on their own, the ideal time to wake a Bear is 7:00 a.m. Word of warning: they’re going to feel groggy.  In order to help a Bear shake off their sleep inertia, get them immediately out-of-bed and expose them to direct sunlight for at least five minutes.  If that’s not possible, expose them to a light with high levels of blue light spectrum for about 15 minutes, such as Lighting Science’s Awake&Alert® bulb.  This will have a similar stimulating effect that will help Bears feel ready for the school day.

Are there certain times of the day when it’s easier for children to learn?

Yes, the best time for Bears to learn is in between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. when their intellectual capabilities are at their peak. Elementary and middle school students are excellent learners, but it’s important for parents to understand that they can only take in so much information before their cognitive performance goes south.  Psychologists have found that learning is most effective with a period of study, followed by a period of rest, followed by another period of study.  That’s why it’s good to let kids rest or play for a bit when they get home from school, rather than trying to get them to do their homework immediately.

When is the best time for parents to talk to their children?

Children are most open to conversation when they’re low energy and not focused on something else, like homework, TV or Snapchat. For these reasons, kids are more likely to open up if parents initiate discussions after school in between 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.  In fact, I often advise parents to talk to their kids in the car while they’re driving them home from school, or to dance class or a sporting event.  There’s something about the combination of good bio-timing and the side-by-side (not face-to-face) dynamic of sitting in a car that’s conducive to getting kids to share details about their day.

When should elementary and middle school kids do their homework?

Gradeschoolers have a natural energy dip in between 2:00p.m. and 4:00 p.m., which helps explain why they’re often cranky and hungry when they get home from school. If you try to force grade-schoolers to learn during these valleys, they’ll struggle to take in information and probably won’t retain it.  But if you wait until they get their second wind, usually around 4:00, they’ll actually have a greater capacity to absorb information.

How about team sports? Is there an optimal time for that?

Yes. The best times for grade-schoolers to play team sports is at either mid-day or dusk.  Bears reach their “bring it” peak around noon and will play hard until they hit their mid-afternoon stamina wall.  Fortunately, they also get a second wind in the early evening.  For this age group, strength and stamina peaks between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., so young bears who play stick sports like tennis, racquetball, golf, baseball or hockey will have stronger games in the late afternoon to early evening.

Dr. Breus' new book "The Power of When" - Chronotypes

Dr. Breus’ new book “The Power of When”

How much sleep do Bears need?

School-age children generally need ten to twelve hours of sleep, although tweens can get by with slightly less, about ten or eleven hours. In order to ensure that grade-schoolers get enough rest, parents should establish a Power-Down hour and a regular bedtime between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

What is a Power-Down hour?

A Power-Down hour means no TV, no gaming devices, no laptops, no computers and no bright lights for at least an hour before bedtime. A lot of parents are surprised to hear that digital devices, and even common household lighting, all contain high levels of blue light spectrum, which is actually stimulating to the body.

Bright lights in the bedroom, and too much screen time too close to bedtime, make it difficult for kids to fall asleep by suppressing production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Instead, encourage them to get their backpacks ready for the next day, read a good book, or play a relaxing game.  Lighting products that filter out blue light spectrum, like the Sleepy Baby® or GoodNight® bulbs by Lighting Science, provide more than enough light for calming evening activities without having a stimulating effect.  A Power-Down hour helps set kids up for success by ensuring that they get the quality rest that they need.

Where can parents go to figure out their own chronotype?

I’ve created a fun, 60 second quiz that will help parents identify their own chronotype: http://thepowerofwhenquiz.com.  My new book, “The Power of When,” also contains a wealth of information about the four different chronotypes, as well as practical advice about how to schedule basic activities for the best results.

Michael J. Breus, PhD, http://thesleepdoctor.com, is widely regarded as one of the nation’s foremost authorities on getting a good night’s sleep. Dr. Breus serves as a member of Lighting Science’s Scientific Advisory Board.  His latest book, “The Power of When,” helps people identify their chronotype and improve their lives by working with—not against—their natural circadian rhythms.