Technology and Teen Sleep Deprivation

Independent School Management

Vol. 16 No. 2 1/24/17

PSN eletter vol15 no2 slee

For the past few years, there has been notable research on how technology (e.g., digital devices, laptops, television) disrupts student sleep patterns—and student success (or not) in school. A recent meta-analysis of 20 studies, Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes, published by JAMA Pediatrics, sheds more light on this “major public-health concern” for students. Attention-stealing devices like televisions, computers, MP3 players, and cell phones are largely to blame.

The study, covering more than 125,000 children, determined there was a “strong and consistent association between bedtime media-device use and inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.” Almost 90% of teens have at least one device in their bedrooms, and most use those devices in the hour before going to bed. Such children are twice as likely to not sleep enough and 40% report poor sleep quality, compared to children who have no access to those devices at bedtime. Students who had access or used media devices before bedtime were also more than twice as likely to experience excessive sleepiness in school.

According to another study from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 95% of those surveyed reported using electronic devices just before sleep. People under the age of 30 are the worst offenders—especially teenagers aged 13 to 18. Texting an hour before sleeping is prevalent, for example. While Baby Boomers on average read, send, or receive five texts in the hour before sleep, Gen-Zers typically text 56 times in that hour. Many students feel a sense of attachment to their phones and other digital devices, and view technology as a lifeline that they can’t live without. Unfortunately, when using such devices disrupts their sleep, this leads to anxiety, depression, and other maladies.

Another problem reported by researches is that exposure late at night to the “blue light” created by computer and other screens causes sleep-phase delay. The lit screens impact (via the retina) the portion of the brain that controls the body’s circadian cycle, sending the message that it’s not time for sleep yet. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that performing “exciting” computer activities, like a playing a video game, may suppress melatonin production, the so-called “sleep hormone.”

The NSF recommends that teens get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep every night of the week. However, the average teen gets about 7.5 hours of sleep each night; 62% of 9th–12th graders report inadequate amounts of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is of particular concern to schools. As mentioned above, research shows that a lack of sleep leads to:

  • poorer school performance (lower grades),
  • inattention,
  • negative moods,
  • health risk behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, thoughts of suicide), and
  • increased incidents of adolescent-related car accidents.

Academic leaders must be aware of these problems and educate parents about the impact of sleep deprivation on their children.

The NSF and other sleep experts make the following recommendations for parents.

  • Take technology out of the bedroom. For example, mandate that all cell phones in the house are recharged at night in a room other than the bedroom. Don’t allow a TV, laptop, or other device in a teenager’s bedroom after a certain hour.
  • Reserve the last hour before bed for nighttime rituals like brushing teeth, showering, etc. Pleasure reading is also a wonderful way to unwind as well.
  • Make your child understand that the lack of sleep can cause them to be less creative, forgetful, do poorly on assignments, and fall asleep in the classroom. Sleep deprivation has also shown to cause acne, weight gain, and other health problems.
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule, every day of the week. Don’t let teenagers stay up late nights or “sleep in” on the weekends.
  • Make sure your child gets enough exercise. An hour of playing tennis, for example, is far better than an hour in bed playing video games.
  • Monitor your child’s schedule. Is he or she overwhelmed with school responsibilities, sports, clubs, perhaps a part-time job at the expense of sleep? Perhaps lessening the number of these activities can rectify the situation.

The dynamics around sleep, student performance, student well-being, and the student’s evening time are complex. Talk with parents to ensure that your students receive an adequate amount of quality sleep—and a better experience at your school.

Teacher empathy reduces student suspensions, Stanford research shows

APRIL 26, 2016

Teacher empathy reduces student suspensions, Stanford research shows

Stanford News

When teachers think empathically, and not punitively, about misbehaving students, they cultivate better relationships and help reduce discipline problems, Stanford research shows.

Being suspended from school is typically harmful to students – it denies them opportunities to learn, damages relationships and sets them on a risky path.

Child and teacher

Teachers who carry an empathic mindset toward students are shown in a Stanford study to deal better with youngsters who misbehave. (Image credit: DGLimages / Shutterstock)

In new Stanford research, an exercise that encouraged middle school teachers to take an “empathic mindset” to student discipline reduced by half the percentage of students who got suspended over the school year – from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent.

The researchers included Stanford psychology post-doctoral fellowJason Okonofua, lead author on the paper, psychology researcher David Paunesku, and Gregory Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. The study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As Okonofua and Walton wrote, a central tenet of the teaching profession is to build positive relationships with students, especially struggling students. But some teachers are exposed to a “default punitive mindset” in school settings due to zero-tolerance policies on student misbehavior.

“It is heartbreaking,” Walton said. “Teachers are caught between two models, a punitive model that says you have to punish kids to get them to behave and an older model that goes to the heart of the profession, which says that teaching is all about building strong relationships with children, especially when they struggle.”

He noted that no one enters the teaching profession in order to send kids to the principal’s office for minor misbehavior. “But punitive policies can lead teachers astray,” Walton said. “That makes kids feel disrespected and ultimately contributes to worse behavior.”

Okonofua added, “All kids need supportive, trusting relationships to help them grow and improve. Our intervention helped teachers reconnect with those values, who they really want to be as a teacher and how they want to relate to their students.”

Punishment or understanding?

The researchers conducted three experiments. The first tested whether 39 teachers could be encouraged to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline. Teachers wrote briefly about how “good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” (empathic mindset) or how “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom” (punitive mindset).

The findings showed that giving teachers an opportunity to express their empathic values – to understand students’ perspectives and to sustain positive relationships with students when they misbehave – improved student-teacher relationships and discipline outcomes.

In fact, teachers given the punitive prime said they would punish a hypothetical misbehaving student more harshly. They were more likely to send the student to the principal’s office. But those given the empathic prime were more likely to say they would talk with the student about his behavior, and less likely to label him a troublemaker.

“A focus on relationships helps humanize students.” Okonofua said. “Then you see them as not just a label but as growing people who can change, who can learn to behave more appropriately, with help.”

In the second experiment, 302 college students imagined themselves as middle school students who had disrupted class. They imagined being disciplined in either of the ways the teachers in the first experiment described, punitive or empathic.

The results showed that participants responded far more favorably when the teacher took an empathic response. They said they would respect the teacher much more, and would be more motivated to behave well in class in the future.

Improving relationships

The researchers also examined whether an empathic mindset created better relationships between teachers and students and reduced student suspensions over an academic year. This experiment involved 31 math teachers and 1,682 students at five ethnically diverse middle schools in three California school districts.

Teachers reviewed articles and stories that described how negative feelings can lead students to misbehave in school and emphasized the importance of understanding students and maintaining positive relationships with students even when they misbehave.

Then teachers described how they maintain positive relationships with students when they misbehave, in an effort to help future teachers better handle discipline problems.

The findings revealed that students whose teachers completed the empathic mindset exercise – as compared to those who completed a control exercise – were half as likely to get suspended over the school year, from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent.

The reduction was just as large for students from groups at higher risk of suspension, including boys, African American and Latino students, and students with a history of suspension.

Moreover, the most at-risk students, those with a history of suspension, reported feeling more respected by their teachers several months after the intervention.

“This intervention, an online exercise, can be delivered at near-zero marginal cost to large samples of teachers and students. These findings could mark a paradigm shift in society’s understanding of the origins of and remedies for discipline problems,” the researchers wrote.

Walton noted how teachers responded when asked to write about how they work to sustain positive relationships with struggling children. One teacher wrote: “I never hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life.”

Okonofua believes the research may spark a new frontier for psychological intervention in many different fields beyond teaching.

“There are cases in which one person’s mindset can have a disproportionate impact on others – like doctors with patients, supervisors with employees, and police with civilians,” he said.

Finland is really good at stopping bullying. Here’s how they’re doing it.

July 1, 2016

By James Gaines
Imagine you’re back in middle school or high school. The bell just rang, so you’re walking to your next class, minding your own business.

Then you walk around the corner and see this:

 

What would you do?

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common scene.

About a fourth to a third of all students report that they’ve been bullied in school.

And while a single bad encounter might be easy to brush off, bullying often doesn’t happen just once. For many kids, it’s a long, awful campaign of continual harassment, injury, and exhaustion.

Even the most resilient kids can have trouble dealing with that. And bullying can also cause depression, anxiety, health complaints, and even dropping out of school. It’s not great.

So back to that question: If you saw bullying, what would you do?

Finland has been asking folks this question for a while, and they found that the answer people give is really important.

 

Finland has one of the most successful education systems in the world, so it’s not surprising that they’ve used this question about bullying to pioneer a brand new and super effective bullying prevention program in schools.

Finland’s anti-bullying program is called KiVa, short for “kiusaamista vastaan,” which means “against bullying.”
KiVa includes many different resources, like tools for teachers and parents and in-classroom lessons. But one of the most interesting aspects is how the program focuses on teaching bystanders what to do if they see bullying. Teachers are not always around, so they can’t always help. But other students often are.

“Our findings are the first to show that the most tormented children — those facing bullying several times a week — can be helped by teaching bystanders to be more supportive,” UCLA professor Jaana Juvonen, said in a press release about a recent analysis of KiVa’s efficacy.

One of the most interesting ways KiVa teaches this bystander empathy is through computer games and simulations.

In one of the games, the kids take control of cartoon avatars that are put in a variety of bullying situations they might encounter in school.

“For instance, they might witness a bullying incident and they have to decide what to do; whether to defend the victim or do something else,” Johanna Alanen, KiVa’s International Project Manager, told Upworthy in an email.

“There are different options on how to defend the victim,” Alanen explained. “Their choices have consequences and lead to new situations.

Basically, the programs are kind of like choose-you-own-adventure stories for bullying, allowing the kids to see what consequences might come from certain actions, all in a virtual setting.

The students are also given advice and feedback about what to say to someone who has been bullied.

“In the game, students can practice how to be nice to someone and what kind of nice things you can say to someone who would like to be included in the group or is new in the school,” said Alanen.

By asking the kids what they would do in certain situations and giving feedback and advice about it, the program can help teach the students to be more empathetic and supportive of bullying victims.

And the data shows that the program works too.

Juvonen’s analysis found that KiVa reduced the odds of a given student being bullied by about one-third to one-half.

That’s huge. And not only that, but early data shows that the program might also help reduce depression and increase self-esteem for kids who have already been bullied.

Now that Finland has adopted KiVa as their national anti-bullying program, it’s being tested other countries too — Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K. — and it’s being evaluated in the United States.

Bullying is a perennial, awful problem that’s tough to eliminate. And there’s probably never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

But programs like KiVa show that even at a young age, empathy is one of the best tools we have to make the world a better place.

Private-Independent School Leadership and Upper/Middle-Class Families

ISM

Columbia University researchers have published startling—and, for private-independent school leaders, profoundly disturbing—findings from a comprehensive project focused on characteristics of upper- and middle-class youth and their families.1 This is the population from which private-independent schools in the U.S. draw most heavily. The researchers’ overarching conclusion is that “youth in upwardly mobile, upper/middle-class community contexts … [are] statistically more likely than normative samples to show serious disturbance across several domains.” Many of these problems are associated with and/or leading to rampant substance abuse, barely manageable levels of stress, and persistent high anxiety.

The authors, citing their own research and decades of findings from other projects, acknowledge many of their findings to be counterintuitive, in the sense that the traditional problem-family focus in the U.S. has been in the opposite direction socioeconomically. Those on their way to prestigious universities and high-paying jobs may deserve at least as much corrective attention as those found elsewhere on the socioeconomic scale. Although not all affluent students are distressed, “an unusually large proportion shows serious levels of maladjustment, relative to parallel rates in national normative samples.”

For private-independent school leaders, the researchers’ most critical observations include the following. (The headings reflect ISM’s categorization of the research findings, not those of the researchers themselves.)

Maturation

  • Around the age of 13, affluent youth start to exhibit signs of emerging problems.
  • Seeking independence from their parents, early adolescents increasingly strive to be popular with their peers. These affluent peer groups typically endorse “counter-conventional behaviors.”
  • As students experience the hormonal changes of puberty, they also begin identity exploration: Who am I? What will I amount to? “The increasing salience of all these developmental issues across adolescence … accounts for escalating signs of trouble.”

Stress

  • In affluent communities, there is an inordinate emphasis on striving for high achievement throughout the school experience. The chief goal is to develop an impressive résumé.
  • Of major concern is “the sense of pressure, criticism, and overly high expectations from adults. … It is critical to note that pressures to succeed come not just from parents but … from outside the family.”

Home Life

  • Affluent students do not feel any closer to their parents than do low-income students.
  • “Laissez-faire monitoring is a particularly powerful predictor [associated with] high substance use, delinquency, and depressive/anxiety symptoms.”
  • Students show elevated symptoms when they believe their parents value their success more than their integrity. Perceived parent pride drives student self-worth, which then “rests largely—and perilously—on achieving and maintaining ‘star status.’”

Résumé-Building and Anxiety

  • Many students see their success as primarily depending on luck, not effort—which leads to learned helplessness and despondency.
  • For children, mental health suffers when wealth provides more than a comfortable subsistence and the omnipresent desire to acquire yet more pervades. Presented with a multitude of choices (e.g., college-level courses, AP, sports), many students worry about how their decisions will impact their résumés and future job opportunities.
  • Students are “preoccupied with becoming … ‘commodities,’ pursuing activities chiefly if they will enhance their résumés. There is scant time or space to [investigate] ‘who they are’ as individuals, nurturing their unique interests, passions and life goals.”

Alternatives

  • What should we see among upper/middle-class youth? We should see evidence of “a balanced set of values, with behaviorally manifested commitment to intrinsic goals, integrity, and low rule-breaking.”
  • “Ratings [of students] by teachers are easier to obtain [than peer ratings by the students themselves], but can grossly underestimate adolescent problems; [the researchers] … have found consistent elevations on rule-breaking by [students’] self-reports, and almost none by teacher reports.”
  • Parents must be “especially vigilant about keeping their children firmly grounded in intrinsic values.”
  • Because prevention efforts are not succeeding with affluent students, address rampant substance abuse with more urgency.
  • “Our task … is to learn how we might achieve peer contagion of a balanced set of personal values—with authentic commitment to intrinsic aspirations … enlisting the help of teens who widely command respect among their age-mates.”
  • Put greater emphasis on training and supporting teachers as student mentors—“formalization of training and support for teachers in this area, to enhance these beneficial relationships with students in ways that are sustainable at both the individual and institutional levels.”
  • When working with distressed students, empathize not only with students but with their parents, “as their overt wrath and contentiousness often stem from intense underlying fearfulness, and even self-blame, for the child’s problems.”

Leadership in Private-Independent-Schools: Suggested Approaches

Following is an array of ISM-suggested corrective steps. Some of these are perspectives ISM has previously published (indeed, for several of them, for many years now). Others are new to this publication.

Consider the extent to which your school can approach these suggestions to counter the destructive trends highlighted by the Columbia University research team. The first list, “programmatic steps,” deals with organizationally complex approaches. The second list, “administrative steps,” deals with organizationally less complex—though not necessarily simpler or easier—approaches.

Programmatic Steps

    • Focus in lower-school parent education on the upcoming threats to children and their families as the children mature into pubescence and adolescence. The researchers note that lower-school parents must recognize:
      • “the long-term risks to their children of embarking on a path overly focused on achievements;”
      • “the critical importance … of shared leisure time, good communication and monitoring, and firm limit-setting, all starting from the earliest years. By middle and high school … it will be extremely difficult to change family patterns that have become well-entrenched.”
    • Enlist the support of middle- and upper-school youth who serve in leadership positions (e.g., student body officers or editorial staff of school newspapers) or those who are de facto leaders (e.g., those opinion-shapers who do not hold leadership office or title). Solicit their help in addressing the need to focus on:
      • intrinsic over extrinsic values and value-development, and
      • a heightened and strengthened sense of shared community values and mutual support and concern.

The research team notes that, for example, “Interactions with [high school newspaper editors and writers] … have been especially gratifying, as students … have initiated active dialogues about the nature of stresses in their high-achieving communities.”

  • Establish your advisory program as a difference-maker. Incorporate advisory-program excellence into the faculty evaluation system, so that a sustained high level of advisory focus and skill becomes a basic condition of employment for middle school and upper-school teachers. Commit adequate time and utilize some of the faculty professional development budget (ISM benchmark: two percent of the operating budget) to fund appropriate levels of faculty education and training.
  • Design student surveys to measure levels of middle school and upper-school attitudes and behaviors that tend to exacerbate the threats highlighted in the research outcomes. In addition, utilize or develop faculty surveys designed to estimate the faculty’s level of understanding of, and self-perceived capacity to deal with, the network of issues contributing to the threats.
  • Develop a system that integrates philosophically the personal counseling program and the college counseling program so that the two share a common perspective and can mutually reinforce the other’s efforts. Strive to ensure that both programs focus on what the researchers have termed “intrinsic” values and goals, and that the college counseling office therefore shines its spotlight as much toward undergraduate institutions whose missions include developing campus communities, as on high-prestige research universities whose missions may not.

Administrative Steps

  • Review effects of Advanced Placement programs and IB programs on stress-and-health levels of students and their families.
  • Review and reassess the effect of the school schedule and calendar on stress and health levels of students and their families.
  • Assess current approaches to hiring and evaluation of teachers and coaches in “performance” areas, e.g., sports, music, and drama. Hire and reward those who hold, espouse, and model the same “intrinsic values” implied by the school’s Purpose and Outcome statements.
  • Assess the adequacy—in view of the research project cited here—of the current Parent Retention and Education Plan.
  • Encourage, in advisory, personal counseling, and college counseling settings, student consideration of middle school, upper school, post-high school, and post-college “leveling” experiences (experiences providing exposure to people from all socioeconomic strata).
  • Host a research intervention as described in the project cited by this article. “Parent groups, students, and teachers have all been invariably not just receptive … but eager to work with data that are: (a) scientifically rigorous; (b) presented with no judgments … and (c) with specific messages about areas that need attention.”

Private-independent school leaders’ contributions to the issues described by the Columbia University research team (and by many others, usually less comprehensively, over the years) have tended to be indirect. No educator wishes, via adversarial or accusatory messaging, inadvertently to contribute to the “serious disturbance across several domains” described in the research report. A blunt-instrument approach could jeopardize student and family retention.

The ISM-suggested programmatic and administrative steps are designed to assist school leaders in navigating these shoal waters with enough care so as not to antagonize the student-family population, and yet with enough force to make a difference. In combination with one another, this suggested array of corrective programmatic and administrative steps may—with leadership persistence, courage, and patience—allow the institutional ship to sail toward a safer, healthier, and more emotionally and psychologically balanced destination.


1 See “‘I can, therefore I must’: Fragility in the Upper-middle classes,” Development and Psychopathology, 25th Anniversary Special Issue, by Suniya S. Luthar, Samuel H. Barkin, and Elizabeth J. Crossman.

Researchers Draw Link Between Physical Activity, Academic Success

EdWeek

Beyond the fitness-related benefits, physical activity can also contribute to students’ academic success, suggests a consensus statement published online Monday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A group of 24 international experts gathered in Denmark back in April “to reach evidence-based consensus about physical activity and youth.” They wound up with a 21-point list divided into four themes: fitness and health; cognitive functioning; engagement, motivation, psychological well-being; and inclusion and physical activity implementation strategies.

When it comes to academics, the researchers concluded that “physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are beneficial to brain structure, brain function, and cognition in children and youth.” Additionally, they suggested “a single session of moderate physical activity has an acute benefit to brain function, cognition, and scholastic performance in children and youth.”

There’s been plenty of research in recent years to back up these assertions. In September 2014, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE found physical activity during recess in 1st grade to be directly correlated to reading fluency in 1st and 2nd grades. A study published in the same journalthe previous September suggested higher levels of aerobic fitness could bolster a child’s ability to learn and remember information. In March 2014, a study found Kansas elementary and middle school students who met certain physical-fitness benchmarks to be considerably more likely to exceed reading and math performance standards.

Accordingly, the Copenhagen Consensus experts concluded that time taken away from academic lessons in favor of physical activity won’t “come at the cost of scholastic performance.” Research suggests there’s a tangible academic benefit to giving students a physical-activity break between hours of lessons, even if it comes at the expense of a few extra minutes of classroom time.

The Copenhagen researchers also found physical activity to have “the potential to positively influence psychological and social outcomes” for students, “such as self-esteem and relationships with peers, parents, and coaches.” They suggested “close relationships and peer group acceptance in physical activity are positively related to perceived competence, intrinsic motivation and participation behavior” in children. The experts particularly endorsed physical-activity programs with “an intentional curriculum and deliberate training,” as they are “effective at promoting life skills and core values” such as respect, social responsibility and self-regulation.

The consensus statement authors highlighted schools as a major asset when it comes to physical activity, as socioeconomic factors may limit some children’s activity opportunities outside of school hours. Having bike lanes, parks, and playgrounds at schools “are both effective strategies for providing equitable access to, and enhancing physical activity for, children and youth,” they concluded.

The Mindful Child

The New York Times

Photo

CreditSam Kalda
It’s long been known that meditation helps children feel calmer, but new research is helping quantify its benefits for elementary school-age children. A 2015 study found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvements in executive functions like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility — and better math grades. A study published recently in the journal Mindfulness found similar improvements in mathematics in fifth graders with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a study of elementary school children in Korea showed that eight weeks of meditation lowered aggression, social anxiety and stress levels.

These investigations, along with a review published in March that combed the developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience literature, illustrate how meditative practices have the potential to actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that foster academic success.

Fundamental principles of neuroscience suggest that meditation can have its greatest impact on cognition when the brain is in its earliest stages of development.

This is because the brain develops connections in prefrontal circuits at its fastest rate in childhood. It is this extra plasticity that creates the potential for meditation to have greater impact on executive functioning in children. Although meditation may benefit adults more in terms of stress reduction or physical rejuvenation, its lasting effects on things like sustained attention and cognitive control are significant but ultimately less robust.

clinical study published in 2011 in The Journal of Child and Family Studies demonstrates this concept superbly. The research design allowed adults and children to be compared directly since they were enrolled in the same mindfulness meditation program and assessed identically. Children between 8 and 12 who had A.D.H.D. diagnoses, along with parents, were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-training program. The results showed that mindfulness meditation significantly improved attention and impulse control in both groups, but the improvements were considerably more robust in the children.

Outside of the lab, many parents report on the benefits of early meditation. Heather Maurer of Vienna, Va., who was trained in transcendental meditation, leads her 9-year-old daughter, Daisy, through various visualization techniques and focused breathing exercises three nights a week, and says her daughter has become noticeably better at self-regulating her emotions, a sign of improved cognitive control. “When Daisy is upset, she will sit herself down and concentrate on her breathing until she is refocused,” Ms. Maurer said.

Amanda Simmons, a mother who runs her own meditation studio in Los Angeles, has seen similar improvements in her 11-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum. Jacob also has A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder, but Ms. Simmons said many of his symptoms have diminished since he began daily meditation and mantra chants six months ago. “The meditation seems to act like a ‘hard reboot’ for his brain, almost instantly resolving mood swings or lessening anger,” Ms. Simmons said. She believes it has enabled him to take a lower dose of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder.

Whether children are on medication or not, meditation can help instill self-control and an ability to focus. Perhaps encouraging meditation and mind-body practices will come to be recognized as being as essential to smart parenting as teaching your child to work hard, eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

To learn some meditation techniques you can teach your child, readThree Ways for Children to Try Meditation at Home.

Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports

The New York Times

By JAN HOFFMAN

Photo

CreditHarriet Lee-Merrion

So why aren’t more teenage girls out on the playing fields?

Research shows that girls tend to start dropping out of sports and skipping gym classes around the onset of puberty, a sharp decline not mirrored by adolescent boys.

A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health found a surprisingly common reason: developing breasts, and girls’ attitudes about them.

In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.

Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.

“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.

The challenge is what to do about it.

After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.

Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.

Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.

Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.

Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.

“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”

Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.

When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.

At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.

Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.

“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”

She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”

In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.

Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.

Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.

“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”

But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”