It’s one of the great joys of early parenthood: Finally being able to sleep until a reasonable hour — say, 6 a.m. Then, before you know it, you’re facing the opposite problem: Homeroom is just half an hour away, and your tween or teen remains an immovable lump beneath the covers.
As any parent who’s observed it would suspect, this is deep biology at work. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics issues both an up-to-date explanation of research on adolescent sleep and a ringing call to the country’s schools to heed it and begin school later for “pathologically sleepy” older students. Sleep deprivation in youth is a common — “and easily fixable” — public health issue, the academy says in a policy statement.
From the press release, whose headline begins “Let Them Sleep:”
“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” [statement lead author Dr. Judith] Owens said. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”
Many studies have documented that the average adolescent in the U.S. is chronically sleep-deprived and pathologically sleepy. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.
This medical stance on sleep deprivation is not new; the research has been accumulating for many years. But the academy reports that about 40 percent of American high schools still start before 8 a.m., and only 15 percent launch the school-day at or after 8:30. Among middle schools, it says, more than one-fifth begin at 7:45 or earlier.
If schools are not shifting later as fast as pediatricians might like, that could be because, like virtually everything in education, it’s not as simple as it might seem.
“Once you go deeper into the lives of kids today, things become more complex,” says Dr. Bob Weintraub, who was the headmaster of Brookline High School from 1992 to 2011 and is now a professor of educational leadership at Boston University. Based on the research, Brookline High shifted start times for most students to 8:30 during his tenure, he said, but such shifts do raise issues.
“One of the practical problems has always been for high school athletics and school activities,” he said; if school ends later, sports and other activities must start later, and outdoor sports are hindered when darkness descends.
“So to move the starting time up to a much later hour really has an impact on lots and lots of kids,” he said, “and also on the spirit of the school. You want to have a vibrant after-school athletic program, you want to have a vibrant after-school activity program,” with a newspaper, drama, music and more.
But the real complexity, he says, comes in the reasons beyond basic biology that teens stay up late — the academic pressures, the social pressures, and perhaps most of all, the electronic media.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that technology is becoming an addiction for young people today; life is going on right now in hyperspeed for most of our young people,” Weintraub says. “Kids are deeply engaged in online stuff. And they don’t want to miss anything.”
So though later school start times may help, he says, some students will surely just stay up correspondingly later.
The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges those logistical challenges, along with others: less time for after-school employment, trickier family schedules, including childcare for younger siblings, and more.
But it argues that “communities across the country have adopted a variety of creative solutions to address these problems, including shifting to public transportation for older students, enlisting community volunteers to provide supervision at bus stops, adjusting class schedules to minimize late dismissal times, scheduling free periods/study hall at the end of the day to allow participation in after-school extra-curricular activities, exempting student athletes from physical education requirements and installing lights for athletic fields.”
The Academy also acknowledges that, as Dr. Weintraub noted, shifting school start times is no panacea for sleep deprivation in teens. It recommends also looking at excessive homework, after-school work, extracurriculars, and electronic media use.
But it says that accumulating research finds that later start times do appear to yield more sleep and have multiple positive effects, from reducing depression to improving academic achievement and cutting fatigue-related car crashes. It recommends that middle and high schools aim to start no earlier than 8:30 in most districts, though some may also need to take average commuting times and other special circumstances into account.
Overall, the academy says, “both the urgency of and the magnitude of the problem of sleep loss in adolescents, and the availability of an intervention that has the potential to have broad and immediate effects are highly compelling.”
Readers, thoughts? Would you want your school district to move the start time later if it hasn’t already? Why or why not?