Part I: Women and Unintended Advocacy
Busy women don’t go looking for causes, but sometimes fate has other plans.
Wendy woke earlier than usual and decided to get up anyways and start the coffee. As she stood at the kitchen sink, she looked out the window and was stunned to see flashing lights piercing the gloom.
Maribel, having just moved into a new home, was shocked one pre-dawn morning to find a group of teens huddling on her porch.
Phyllis, awakened in the wee hours of the morning to nurse her newborn, looked outside and was surprised to see her babysitter standing by the road in the dark.
All three women knew that something wasn’t right.
Dr. Wendolyn Bedrosian, the mother of an elementary-age daughter, realized she was watching the middle school bus traveling through her Hudson, Ohio neighborhood picking up groggy teens at 6:30 am. As Assistant Professor in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum Studies at Kent State University, she was familiar with the research showing that adolescents experience a later shift in sleep cycle during puberty which extends to approximately age 24. Because of this puberty-related shift, she knew that early wake times directly interferes in sleep and therefore interferes in health and learning.
Wendy asked around to confirm the middle and high school start times and she acted. She wrote a letter to the editor of her local paper, sent research studies to school board members, and was instrumental in the eventual changes in school start times in Hudson.
Maribel Ibrahim found out that the porch of her newly purchased home was where the teens in her Maryland neighborhood historically waited for the 6am-hour bus. Although Maribel understood that schools adopted ‘tiered’ bus runs due to simplicity and perceived cost savings, as a FedEx route design engineer, she knew there had to be more efficient and safe ways to get kids to school – after all, our children are a much more precious cargo.
She would eventually meet biomedical writer and historian, Dr. Terra Ziporyn Snider, through social media. The two would co-found, Start School Later, a national non-profit organization with a mission to advocate for school start times compatible with health, safety, education, and equity. Terra’s youngest child recently graduated from a high school that still starts at an unhealthy hour. With more colleges moving away from early courses, all her children now have better chances for normal sleep, but Terra is still committed to the cause. She knew that for the movement to be successful locally and nationally, it would require parents to advocate beyond the academic life of their children.
Phyllis Abramcyzk Payne, who saw her babysitter waiting for the bus around 6am, knew that the girl had faced several bouts of mono. As a health educator and science writer, Phyllis suspected sleep deprivation was a major contributing factor to her babysitter’s health woes. When her children entered school, Phyllis started asking questions at the elementary PTA meetings about school start times for the older grades.
Unbeknownst to her, mother and journalist Sandy Evans was raising the same concerns at the middle school PTA meetings. A mutual acquaintance introduced the two, and over coffee at Starbucks, the advocacy group SLEEP was formed. Phyllis received a Citation of Merit by Congressman Gerald Connolly for her work on raising awareness of healthier school start times.
I also became an unintended advocate. In 2009, my father sent me the book “Nurture Shock” which highlights various areas of research related to child health and functioning. The book sat on my shelf gathering dust for awhile before I finally found time to read it, and when I did, the chapter on sleep, “The Lost Hour”, immediately caught my attention. Authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, reviewed the latest studies on sleep – studies conducted well after my mental health colleagues and I finished graduate school. I was dismayed at how little I knew about sleep, and I started asking my teen counseling clients what time their alarm went off. I was stunned to hear answers such as 5:30am, 5:45, and 6:00 – sometimes 5:00 or earlier for kids taking that dreaded ‘zero hour’ class. Over several months, I kept thinking: “I hope someone is doing something about this.”
Changes need to be made!
That summer, in the parking lot of the local library, I ran into a mother who told me that nearby Hudson was changing school start times for the next school year. I made some calls and found out it took the school district four years of planning to act on the research. At that time, both of my sons were in elementary school, and I realized that if I wanted to see changes that could benefit my clients and my own children, I needed to act myself.
My first step was to pour over the research, and two things struck me: 1) The overwhelming evidence supporting later school start times; and 2) The prominent role women have played, not only in the advocacy, but also in the research.
See Part II for “Women and Sleep Research”…