Science says later school start times could be the answer to the tired teen

November 29, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Sometimes teens get a bad rap when they want to sleep the day away after staying up all night. But it turns out, according to science, your “lazy” teen might just be tired.

“When we’re newborns, we need a lot of sleep, as much as 17 hours, in chunks spread throughout the day. But as we age, less sleep is required, and we settle into a nighttime schedule that is controlled by two biological processes: our homeostatic sleep drive and circadian rhythm,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

To explain the two processes in the simplest of terms, our bodies’ sleep drive alerts the body when it needs to sleep. The longer we stay awake, the more our body begins to demand sleep.

Our circadian rhythm – physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle – on the other hand, regulates alertness and grogginess throughout the day. That’s why you may feel sluggish in the afternoon, around the hours of 1 to 3 p.m.

The hormonal changes of puberty are, in part, responsible for shifting a teen’s circadian rhythm. Referred to as the “sleep phase delay,” before puberty, a teen’s body would signal it to become tired around 8 or 9 p.m., but once puberty hits, that rhythm is shifted a couple hours later to around 10 to 11 p.m. and in some cases, even later.

So, due to the biology of human development, a teen’s sleep drive doesn’t allow for their brain to begin to “shut down” until later in the evening, which in turn, they’re not able to naturally awaken before about 8 a.m.

As more research continues to emerge about the science behind teen sleep, or lack thereof, the same studies show a direct link between sleep deprivation and teen health. As a result, more and more schools across the United States have begun to research, consider and implement later school start times for their adolescent students.

We’re all tired; what’s the big deal?

Perhaps the defining insult of 2016, some may argue letting teens get their sleep can be enabling “Generation Snowflake,” but for the teen brain, sleep deprivation can have some pretty serious consequences on their ever-evolving minds.

When teens are sleep deprived, it not only affects their school performance, but can become a safety and mental health issue.

In a recent TED talk, Dr. Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist and senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation (Research ANd Development) discussed the “adolescent health paradox,” that teenagers experience. Teens are navigating life throughout an integral developmental period, where their physical strength and resilience face disproportionately high mortality rates due to unintentional injury, from causes like automobile accidents, suicide and even sometimes homicide.

Troxel shares, “we spend such a great deal of time, money and energy on programs to prevent adolescent violence and suicide, to counsel against substance abuse and unsafe sex — and not always successfully. Given the vulnerability, and the dramatic changes happening with teen development, researchers are looking for other ways to support adolescent brains and general well-being. Sleep loss problems are linked with brain areas that control emotional processes and risk taking. Sleep problems and behavioral and mental health problems are linked.”

Teens who aren’t getting enough sleep can begin to show behavioral signs that mimic ADHD and by the numbers, Troxel says, “teens with sleep problems were 55 percent more likely to have used alcohol in the past month, and each hour of lost sleep was associated with a 38 percent increased risk of feeling sad or hopeless and a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts.”

She continues, “teens who skimp out on sleep are also at higher risk of physical health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease….and studies have shown that getting five hours or less of sleep per night is the equivalent of having a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.”

In her research of later school start times, she’s found that students are more likely to show up for school, standardized test scores in reading and math increase and overall mental and physical health improves.

Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics backs up Troxels’ data and has made the recommendation that later school start times can positively affect the physical, emotional and wellness needs of teens.

Paul Jenkins, Superintendent of Glens Falls City School District in Glens Falls, N.Y. first started exploring the idea of later school start times for his district in 2009, after high school faculty discussions centered on how to improve student achievement. When the idea of later school start times was introduced as an option, a long journey of research ensued – a sleep study was conducted, followed by considering aspects that could be impacted, like traffic flows and after-school athletics.

Ultimately, after all the research, in September 2012 the district shifted the high school and middle school start times from 7:45 a.m. to 8:28 a.m. The change allowed students approximately 45 extra minutes of sleep in the early morning, which school officials hoped would increase student performance, elevate overall student health, and ultimately improve the school’s learning process.

Almost immediately, the high school began to see improvements and experienced a drop in course failures, tardiness, absences and discipline referrals.

“Making the change to a later start time for our high school students was really one of the best decisions our district could have made,” Jenkins said. “We are not only charged with providing a sound education for our students, we are also responsible for creating a safe and healthy environment. Giving our students an extra 45 minutes to an hour of sleep every day is beneficial to their overall health as well as their ability to perform in the classroom.”

Not a “one size fits all” decision

Dr. Charles Dedrick, director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS) acknowledged that the idea of later school start times for adolescent students is something the Council is hearing more about nowadays.

“I wouldn’t call it a trend just yet,” he said. “But, let’s just say the topic has become trendier, and there has been a lot of conversation surrounding the idea.”

When it comes to school districts exploring their options for later school start times, Dedrick encourages districts and their communities to have open, honest conversations about the whole picture of what is involved in making such a major school culture change.

“When starting the [school start time] conversation, every aspect needs to be considered, from start times for events afterschool, the impact it may have on afterschool jobs…the local economy…transportation and traffic patterns.”

“It may be beneficial to a certain age group of students, but is it going to also be beneficial for their siblings, their parents, their teachers? I don’t believe the answer for any district is a simple yes or no, and school districts certainly need to work to see what the best decision for them and their community. It’s something that needs to be decided at the local level.”

Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. 

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