Mary Sheedy Kurcinka grew up on a dairy farm near Austin, Minnesota, the youngest of five children. An aunt by the time she was 10, she has always loved kids and remembers at age 13 being completely intrigued by “Dibs in Search of Self,” a book on child psychology. It was not a surprise that she graduated from Iowa State University with an early childhood degree and a teaching license for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.
Kurcinka speaks on “Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?” on Tuesday, April 8, at the Chapin School. The public is invited. Kurcinka says the workshop will be research based, practical, and fun. “People are going to come out with specific strategies that can enhance their relationships with their kids and specific tools to make the day go better,” says Kurcinka.
Her path into studying the sleep habits of children began when she entered the University of Minnesota for a master’s degree in family social science. While in graduate school, Kurcinka began a 17-year tenure coordinating a new pilot program in family education being developed in the public schools, which offered weekly parent education classes for parents of children from birth through kindergarten.
In the program’s early years Kurcinka worked in the city, but when she moved to suburbia, she began noticing differences in some of the children. “I began seeing kids, not unlike my own son,” she says, “normal kids, but more intense, sensitive, and energetic.”
These kids were also hard to manage. “Many of the strategies being recommended in texts of that time didn’t work,” she says, “and it was very humbling. My first thought was that I must be doing something wrong, then I had a second child who fit the textbooks.” She understood then that she wasn’t doing anything wrong, but that her son and kids like him “come out that way and need a different style of guidance.”
As Kurcinka was developing these ideas, she took a course on how to write a book proposal, and her teacher promised that her agent was willing to look at any finished proposals. Kurcinka got hers done, and the agent not only liked it but sold “Raising Your Spirited Child” to Harper Collins; and her district gave her a 10-month leave of absence to write the book. “It is about normal kids who are more intense, sensitive, insistent, passionate, energetic,” says Kurcinka.
After writing her second book, “Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles,” Kurcinka started to do private consultations with families, who would often be so grateful they would ask her, “How did you get into my house?” Parents often feel they are alone, she says, “but when they learn to understand and guide their children, the kids bloom.
“These tend to be creative, innovative, great kids,” says Kurcinka. “You have to understand as a parent that they have arousal systems that are more easily triggered.” The parents must recognize what sets the children off and teach them to calm themselves.
Then Kurcinka adds what seems like a non sequitor but is not. “And parents must absolutely protect their children’s sleep.”
Kurcinka started to think about the role of sleep, or more precisely of sleep deprivation, one day on a home consultation. It was late afternoon, and she encountered a little girl who had been throwing temper tantrums from the moment she woke up. While Kurcinka was there, the girl fell asleep. Kurcinka looked at the parents and said, “I think she was exhausted.” But the parents had concluded just the opposite — that she didn’t need much sleep — after years of watching the child fighting sleep every night and awakening early every morning.
But Kurcinka was not so sure, and she walked out wondering why a child who seemed so exhausted was resisting sleep. So she did some research and found that sleep and arousal are part of the same system. When kids get overtired, their arousal system gets so excited that they are wired; it’s not that they don’t want to go to sleep but that they can’t sleep.
Furthermore, once the arousal system gets so agitated that it interferes with sleep, these children have difficulty paying attention, lose their temper over little things, and start forgetting what they should remember. She saw that sleep and behavior were closely related and realized that no disciplinary strategy would work for long with an exhausted child.
Twenty percent of kids diagnosed with attention deficit disorder may have a sleep disorder, says Kurcinka. “Kids are getting into trouble for behavioral problems when they really need sleep.”
When people tell her that their children have always been crabby and unable to focus, she asks, “Well, when did that happen?” Often it turns out that a dropped nap or a lengthened commute was when problems began. “Now I always start with sleep,” she says of her consultations with parents. “You have to see what disappears when you get enough sleep. Then we work on other skills.”
Sleep is really a form of preventative discipline, because a rested child is generally a better-behaved child. Kurcinka used her discoveries about sleep to write her most recent book, “Sleepless in America,” where she offers insight into how we as a society can help both our children and ourselves get enough sleep:
Understand the serious consequences of chronic sleep deprivation. Insufficient sleep hinders performance and growth and development, weakens the immune system, and is linked to obesity and an increase in cavities. Kurcinka cites this startling statistic: just 41 minutes of sleep deprivation affects performance. And another: Eighty percent of adolescents are not getting the sleep they need during the week.
Be aware of how much sleep you and your children really need. Preschoolers need 12 hours of sleep, so if young children must awake at 6:30 a.m. and don’t nap, they need to be asleep by 6:30 at night. Adolescents need nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep, but are averaging only six hours and 50 minutes.
Figure out how much time is left for activities. Take out a day planner; put in the hours of sleep first, then add hours at school or work, and study or errand time. What’s left can be allotted to activities or relaxation. “You have to make some choices,” says Kurcinka. “You can’t make up the learning that didn’t go into long-term memory or the cost to your immune system, or the tissue and muscle repair that didn’t occur — you lose it.”
Make compromise choices that leave time for bed. Kurcinka is not recommending that people become rigid fanatics around sleep but rather that they become more aware of choices. Recently her assistant had booked a flight for Kurcinka to Canada; although her talk was not scheduled until evening, the flight would have required Kurcinka to wake up at 4:50 a.m. She decided instead to tell her hosts she needed to fly in the evening before.
When Kurcinka’s daughter was in high school and had to be up at 6 a.m., she wanted to watch a popular television show that was not over until 10 p.m. The compromise solution, which also allowed for a good night’s sleep, was that her daughter would get ready for bed during commercials so that she could watch the show and still be in bed right at 10.
Change your attitude about the prevailing culture. “Our culture is one that brags about how little sleep we get by on,” says Kurcinka. Kids are under tremendous pressure to plan heavy academic schedules and be involved in numerous activities — at the expense of children’s sleep. “What we have to start talking about culturally is the pressure we are putting kids under and the cost to their health,” says Kurcinka. Some communities have even made her book a “community reads” selection.
Sleep needs to move from the back seat to the front, says Kurcinka. “Sleep is important. We need to talk about it, think about it, and make choices accordingly.”
“This is a message that in some ways we don’t love hearing,” says Kurcinka. But when people listen, the results can be spectacular. Parents whose children are now sleeping enough tell her about vastly improved family life: “We don’t fight in the morning anymore. We are having breakfast together. It’s wonderful going out of the door chatting together. Dinner isn’t a fight, homework is not battle, and he’s not killing his brother after school anymore.”
So how do we make these changes? “A good night’s sleep begins in the morning, not at bedtime,” says Kurcinka. “All day long we are making choices that make it easier or harder to fall asleep,” including, for example, over-scheduling, caffeine consumption, and stress. The Japanese have responded to sleep research in an ingenious way: high school students have desk pillows and are invited to take a 20-minute power nap at lunch to improve focus for the afternoon.
Perhaps American students need a similar respite when they get home from school. She encourages people to set a timer for a nap of not longer than 20 minutes so that the night’s sleep will not be affected. Even if the adolescent does not fall asleep, just relaxing is helpful. She also encourages exercise and regular, nutritional meals.
Changing the destructive patterns of sleep in the United States will have to happen community by community. “It’s like drunk driving,” says Kurcinka. “People used to drink and drive, and now absolutely not — they get a designated driver. But sleep deprivation causes more traffic accidents for teenagers than liquor. When kids have activities that run until 10:30 at night and you expect kids at school at 5:30 a.m., people will start to be appalled and say, ‘We won’t do this; it’s not safe for our kids.’”
“Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?,” Tuesday, April 8, 7:30 to 9 p.m., the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike. Lecture by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Sponsored by CommonGround. Free and open to the public. 609-924-2449