DVMS Casa Staff on Sleep, Technology, and Executive Functions

By Dylan Hudecki, Elizabeth Flenniken, and Pat Stephens

On our last PD day, we attended the Canadian Association of Montessori Teachers conference and were immediately inspired by several different speakers.

Stuart Shanker spoke about advances in developmental neuroscience and how they dramatically alter our understanding of what adults can do to enhance the development of children’s brains. In particular, we now recognize that the better a child can self-regulate (control their own behavior) the better they can master complex skills and concepts. So how do we help them?  Very simply put, he explained why sleep is so very important. He explained the difference between restorative sleep and non-restorative sleep.

(Click here to read more about the Casa staff’s experience at CAMT).

The main reason children and adults are experiencing non-restorative sleep is our exposure to technology (TV, video games, movies, cell phones, computers, iPods and iPads). Stuart Shanker was not dismissing the many benefits of technology, but we do, however, need to be aware of when and how often we use it. Studies show that, in order for the brain to slow down and be able to reach the restorative state for sleep, the brain needs at least an hour of tech-free time before sleeping. Non-Restorative sleep is causing many children (and adults) to function with added anxiety and stress throughout the day. Sleep deprivation is the biggest contributor to stress, and that stress levels in youth are higher than they’ve ever been.

Shanker also explained how many children who exhibit symptoms of learning disorders like ADD, ADHD, OCD, and Behavioral disorders can sometimes be misdiagnosed and sleep deprivation is the real culprit.

Diet is another contributor to stress and anxiety that we can have more control over. Shanker reported on recent studies that indicate high levels of sodium and sugar in our diets cause stress and anxiety.

To focus a bit more on technology, we are the first generation to raise children in such a technologically advanced, digital society.  This is both exciting and frightening at the same time. We are navigating unknown waters as parents with our children being the guinea pigs to the long-term effects of technology exposure.

Physical implications of technology aside, we also need to stop and think for a moment about how technology is penetrating our family unit.  Our family dynamics are changing fundamentally as increased engagement with technology results in increases in disengagement between family members.  How often do we find ourselves interrupting a story or game with our children to look at an incoming text or email, in a moment, non-verbally telling our children that “What I do on my phone is more important than my time with you.”

Catherine Steiner-Adair has written a fabulous book titled The Big Disconnect that address how, while technology is a necessity and has it’s place in our lives, we need to be conscious of what and how much we are exposing our children to, including how often they observe us as disengaged parents as we flick through our Facebook newsfeed or respond to non-essential texts.

At this point, you may feel as if technology is a runaway train that we simultaneously need to keep up with, but also curse its addictive powers at the same time.  We have put together a list of small changes that you may consider implementing to start to limit technology and restore healthy family dynamics.

Consider the following:

1. Shut off all technology and screens at least one hour before bed. To go one step further, begin a new schedule to have no technology for your children during the week, allowing it only on weekends. This will take away the arguments involved with dragging the children away from the TV when it comes time to leave for school, which we’ve all experienced first hand.  It will also drastically diminish their screen time, and they will start to play with their toys again!

2. Limit your screen time while your children are present and treat your time with them as sacred.  Your texts, emails, and Facebook will be there when you are finished.

3. Snacks are great for kids as humans are grazers by nature. Allow for lots during the day, and try to have dinner as close to 5 as possible, which is what their bodies need for a healthy evening routine. Cut out sodium as much as possible. Dealing with a picky eater can be difficult, but giving your child a well-rounded diet will set them up for success.

For further reading on the topic of kids and technology, see our previous PATH article that reviewed some relative issues by leading specialists: “Kids and Tech: A Leveled Article Review”

If you do not have time to read the whole thing, here are some of the cited articles:

Toddlers becoming so addicted to iPads they require therapy.

The negative impact of technology on the Developing Child

The touch screen generation.

Is your child to young for a tablet?

Is technology sapping children’s creativity?

Note: Since the original drafting of this article, a couple of other relevant pieces on executive functions have been published.

At the end of November, the CBC published an article on self-regulation that references Stuart Shanker, and Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child published a video – “Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning” – and working paper “Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function,” which is the joint working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs.

We hope that this starts a conversation about how we can work together to navigate technology and continue to raise children who are socially engaged and connected to the world. Want to chat? Please comment below.

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  1. Pingback: Upper East This Week: May 26-30 2014 | Dundas Valley Montessori School

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