Bedtimes in too many group and residential settings these days seem to be based on two things: (1) What "level" a child or youth is "on", and (2) how new a child or youth is to the setting (which of course means s/he is on the lowest "level".)
Synthesizing numerous observations made over the years, hereís how it works. When new children or youth are admitted, they are put on the "lowest" level. This of course offers the fewest "privileges". One inexorable "privilege" is a "later" bedtime. So, those youths on the lowest level are the first to go to bed. If as time goes on they have "earned" their way to a higher level, but then fail to garner sufficient "points" to maintain it, they find themselves "back on Level 1" and then bedtime becomes earlier again.
Stomping on my Soapbox, I must say that I can think of fewer practices that are more ill-advised, or less tuned into the real needs of youth, than this way of handling bed time. The practice totally refutes the meaning of bed, sleep, rest, and rising to a new day, as well as the developmental dynamics of the kinds of young people who find their way into care.
Letís consider, for just one brief example, Jim, who has an earlier, permanent separation from his own family; has been in multiple "placements"; and has experienced various kinds of abuse along the way. When Jim arrives at his new residence, he is greeted not with the warm welcome that might at least implicitly support him as he enters one more "placement", but a list of procedures that are linked to rewards and punishments. With his automatic and arbitrary placement on "level 1", he has the earliest bedtime ó letís say 9:00 PM, even though heís 16 years old. So he ends up going to bed much earlier than he is accustomed to and at a time that if he fell asleep right away he would actually sleep more than required for his age. (And by the way, I am a great believer in the significance of sufficient sleep for children and youth, and the relationship of adequate sleep to such important attributes as self-regulation. Bedtimes need to be calibrated with the time youth must arise to get to school or other morning commitments). However, while Jim, who does not have to be in the nearby school until 8:45 a.m., awaits for the sleep that will come later, he has plenty of time to review the past traumas and upsets in his life, as well as to confirm his fears that once more he will be in a place where his needs will not be met. Time for fantasies to escalate, and perhaps not happy ones.
So I now propose that we reconceptualize how bedtime and wake up are handled. In doing so I 'd like to acknowledge two sources who can extend our understanding of this fundamental aspect of daily living. . One is Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim may be somewhat out-of-fashion now for various reasons, but his chapters "From Dreams to Waking" and "Bedtime" in Love is not Enough are classics and offer brilliant insights into the dynamics and meaning of going to bed, sleeping and waking up. The other of course is "our own" Henry Maier whose developmentally oriented conception of group care truly captures the intent and meaning of child and youth care. Henry urges us to look at rhythms and rituals in our milieu programs, and certainly bedtime and waking are a prime area for this consideration.
A developmental approach would mean that bedtimes were based on the age ranges, developmental characteristics, and individual needs of the youth. Their backgrounds and temperaments would be taken into consideration. Bedtimes might be set with the earliest ones for younger groups and later ones for older groups, with opportunity for flexibility when there are special occasions or other reasons for modification.
As bedtime approaches, activities might become quieter. Rather than "toting up the points" for the day and packing the kids off to an inappropriately timed bedtime, think about mixing up a cup of cocoa together, sitting down to discuss the plans for the next day, and using the time together to help newcomers be welcomed into the group. Then, read the kids a bedtime story. Iíve heard it over and over from those whoíve tried it. The biggest, toughest acting youths might bluster, but they are all ears when an adult reads them a story. Itís all about what they missed out on in their earlier years and the meta-message of caring and nurturance that is conveyed.
For waking up? Try as those before us have recommended, soft music, a reminder that one doesnít have to get out of bed just yet, a comment on something interesting to happen in the day to come, and a hand in laying out clothing for the day, rather than the "you-didnít-get-up-when-called-and-make-your-bed-before-breakfast-therefore-you-lost-points" regime.
So this is a wake up call. Think about what helps you in falling asleep and waking up and what these times mean to you. Read - or re-read- Bettelheim and Maier (theyíre good bedtime reading) and then letís rewrite the story of "levels-based" bedtimes and abrupt wake ups.
From the Soapbox,