In my preceding Psychology Today pieces, “Let the Kids Sleep” (February 2016) and “Let the Kids Sleep, Part II” (March 2017), I pointed out what may be obvious for parents of teens: along with anticipated biological changes of adolescence affecting mood and emotions comes a rather dramatic, and for some surprising, change in sleep patterns. Bottom line: teens need more sleep (think exhausting brain recalibration) and different schedules (more nocturnal than diurnal).
The ramifications of this seemingly innocuous shift are actually of great import, changing outcomes involving driving, mental health, school attendance, and academic performance. Just ask any teen you might know.
Here’s what some had to say.
“No matter how early I wake up for class, I always have to rush to make it there on time.”
“The weather today is for sleeping, not for going to school.”
“My mom doesn’t understand that I need to sleep in the extra five minutes …”
“Dear kindergarten children, if you don’t like nap time please give it to us. Sincerely, High Schoolers.”
I feel their pain.
So do parents. Those commenting on a petition titled “Start School Later – Healthy Hours” included the following.
- Some of our middle school and high school children in our community get on the bus as early as 5:50 a.m. for a 7:10 start. Our school board thinks this is ok. They wonder why our test scores have dropped since they started this nonsense 3 years ago … our football team didn’t win a single game this past season.
- Since we have returned from overseas and my son has started at River Hill High School, adjusting to the start time of High School has taken its toll on not only the student but the whole family. He has gone from an A student to a struggling student. He is constantly tired, depressed and retention is significantly hampered. Common sense indicates that none of this is beneficial for our son, or any teenager for that matter.
An article by Ruthann Richter, director of media relations for Stanford Medical School’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs, states, “Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts” (Richter, 2015).
She offers a compelling case-in-point.
“Carolyn Walworth, 17, often reaches a breaking point around 11 p.m., when she collapses in tears. For 10 minutes or so, she just sits at her desk and cries, overwhelmed by unrelenting school demands. She is desperately tired and longs for sleep. But she knows she must move through it, because more assignments in physics, calculus or French await her. She finally crawls into bed around midnight or 12:30 a.m.
“The next morning, she fights to stay awake in her first-period U.S. history class, which begins at 8:15. She is unable to focus on what’s being taught, and her mind drifts. ‘You feel tired and exhausted, but you think you just need to get through the day so you can go home and sleep,’ said the Palo Alto, California, teen. But that night, she will have to try to catch up on what she missed in class. And the cycle begins again.
“‘It’s an insane system … The whole essence of learning is lost,’ she said” (Richter, 2015).
What do the sleep experts say?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best. Most … do not get enough sleep – one study found that only 15 percent reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights.” That is important because critical processing, restoration and strengthening happen during sleep (NSF, 2018).
Yet, more than half of teens themselves (52 percent) report they get less than six hours of sleep on weeknights. That may come as a surprise to their parents, the majority of whom (61 percent) believe their kids are getting enough rest (Wallace, 2015a).
So what is impeding this biological imperative? Young people point to the following.
- Busy schedule (extracurricular, school, etc.) – 43 percent
- Staying up late completing homework – 32 percent
- Social activities – 24 percent
- Work – 20 percent
Parents might add social media, texting and video games.
Sounds dire, but a simple – if somewhat complicated – remedy seems to be in the offing: later school start times.
While that may seem an easy fix, others beg to differ. In her TIME magazine article “Why Schools Are Struggling to Let Students Sleep In,” Alexandra Sifferlin quotes a Temecula, California, school administrator as saying, “We wanted to change, but ultimately we couldn’t.” She cites such snags as parents’ needing to get to work and intransigent school bus schedules (Sifferlin, 2016).
Change is hard. But change is necessary.
To wit, University of Minnesota data collected from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming whose schools had made this shift noted the incalculable benefits of making such adjustments. The study revealed that when schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later, teenagers reported lower rates of depression and substance use, fewer car crashes, less absenteeism and tardiness, and higher test scores.
In November 2015, the Seattle (Washington) School Board voted to require city high schools to move start times from 7:50 to 8:45 a.m., making it one of the largest districts in the country to implement the change (Cornwell, 2015).
A deeper dive into the outcomes of that decision is documented in a recent NPR article, “Sleepless No More in Seattle – Later School Start Time Pays Off for Teens.” The research, conducted by the University of Washington, demonstrated that students whose schools changed their starting time from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. – more in line with natural sleep cycles of adolescents – slept an additional 34 minutes, increasing “total nightly sleep from 6 hours and 50 minutes to 7 hours and 24 minutes” (Neighmond, 2018).
That longer, and improved, sleep duration yielded some pretty persuasive results, including better school attendance records and better academic performance.
The study’s senior author, Horacio de la Iglesia, explained, “‘Getting a little extra sleep in the morning can be vital for teens. They fall asleep later than older adults and young kids.’” He offers that an adolescent’s biological bedtime is close to midnight and says if parents expect them to go to sleep earlier, “‘They’ll just lay in bed and not fall asleep.’”
Of the difference, their teachers had a lot to say. Cindy Jatul, a biology teacher, stated, “‘When we started at 7:50 a.m. there would always be stragglers who were having a hard time getting here,’” noting that many were groggy. She continued, “‘For example, if I gave them a project in the lab, they would be the most likely class to mess up.’”
Science teacher A.J. Kataeoff reported, “‘There was lots of yawning’ when school started at 7:50 a.m. Students had a hard time engaging in the work or in brief discussions … ‘Some of the best practices in science educationhave students talk, discuss and investigate together and those are all very hard when the brain is not fully powered …’” (Neighmond, 2018).
The same article points out that in 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics delivered a policy statement recommending that school districts change start times to 8:30 a.m. or later (Owens, 2014). Sounds good. But the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that only 17 percent of public middle and high schools have done so … leading to the question, Why not?
After all, 34 minutes bring a world of good.