Family

Not Saved by the Bell

Early school start times aren't helping sleepy kids

It’s back-to-school time and that means shopping: new shoes, new shirts, notebooks for every subject and pens in six different colors.

But if you are the parents of a teenager you many need to add something else to the shopping list — an alarm clock, and probably more than one.

Teenagers are notoriously difficult to drag out of bed in the morning. A 16-year-old can easily sleep until noon, and during summer vacation may have stayed in bed that long or longer. With school starting, though, that same teen must make roll call for first period, often before 8 a.m.

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So begins the school year struggle. Mom calls for her high-schooler to wake up around 6 a.m. She is met with a grunt or a moan or maybe only silence. She tries again, a little louder, 10 minutes later. Another grumble. The teen may have set his or her own alarm clock, but it may not matter. For the next 40 minutes, Mom or Dad may try various tactics from threats to stealing blankets. (The desperate may even resort to using water.)

The teen is likely to complain that it is too early, he’s too tired and getting up this early is inhuman.

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He’s not being lazy or melodramatic; he’s actually correct. For a typical healthy teenager, 6 a.m. is too early to awaken — nearly three hours too early. It may not be exactly inhuman, but it does go against his or her human nature and natural biorhythms.

Teenagers are the ultimate night owls, and they come by it honestly.

All people have different internal clocks and are likely to be at their best at different times of the day. Morning larks love the dawn. Night owls, not so much. Teenagers are the ultimate night owls, and they come by it honestly. Sometime around age 13, the human body clock undergoes a shift and the youngster begins to stay awake later and later into the night.

It is not unusual for a healthy teen to be alert and active, not feeling at all sleepy, until midnight or after. That same teen, still a growing kid, needs 9-9.5 hours of sleep each night to feel fully rested, learn easily and perform optimally. If sleep does not normally begin until 12 a.m., that person should still be asleep at 9 a.m.

These sleep patterns, with the best sleep occurring between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., or 12 a.m. and 9 a.m., usually persist into the early 20s before they begin to shift back to earlier hours.

The normal sleep schedule of the adolescent runs into conflict with the school schedule set by mostly morning lark administrators.

This normal adolescent clock shift is called a delayed sleep phase. If the teenager has the opportunity to sleep during these hours, he will likely sleep well and wake refreshed. If he is forced, say by work or school, to get up earlier than he is wired for, he may suffer excessive sleepiness or physical and mental health problems.

Then it becomes a medical disorder called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. DSPS is not really a disease, though. It is a scheduling conflict. The normal sleep schedule of the adolescent runs into conflict with the school schedule set by mostly morning lark administrators.

Evidence suggests our 21st century teenagers are seriously sleep deprived. Surveys by the National Sleep Foundation have found tha t60 percent of children under 18 years of age reported being sleepy during the day, while 15 percent admitted to falling asleep in class.

A congressional resolution was introduced as far back as 1997 to encourage school districts to reconsider the early start times for American high schools. The “Zzzs to As” Act suggested schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This noble idea has proven to be easier said than done. In 2012 the National Center for Education Statistics reported that of 18,000 public high schools, fewer than 14 percent had adopted an 8:30 morning bell.

Transportation logistics, after-school activities and a disruption of parental work schedules come into play.

Even though Mary Carskadon, a sleep researcher and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and others have shown that sleep deprived teens get lower grades, suffer more often depression and are more likely to be involved in vehicle crashes, school boards have been reluctant to change schedules.

The challenges are complex and far-flung. Transportation logistics, after-school activities and a disruption of parental work schedules come into play. Then there’s the resistance by teachers who don’t want to take time from their own families to work later in the day.

The advantages, though, can be immense, and those forward-thinking school districts that have made the change are starting to report success.

  • After delaying high school start time by just 30 minutes, students at St. Georges School in Middletown, Rhode Island, increased their total sleep time, arrived to class on time, were more alert and often found time for a healthy breakfast.
  • In Jessamine County, Kentucky, school start times were pushed back from 7:30 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Within the first year, school officials saw increases in both  attendance and standardized test scores.
  • Iowa’s West Des Moines School District found that by starting high school later, they needed fewer buses and are saving $700,000 annually in transportation related costs.
  • Another Kentucky county found the number of car crashes involving teenagers dropped by nearly 17 percent in the first two years after implementing later start times. Teen crash rates for the rest of the state increased 7.8 percent during the same period.

The case for later school start times is clear. The grassroots movements such as StartSchoolLater.net are gaining momentum and spreading the information. The high school schedules in your town may be changing soon.

And in the meantime, stock up on alarm clocks.

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