Starting School Later Helps Teens Get More Sleep

By Lacy Schley | December 12, 2018 2:44 pm
alarm clock

(Credit: Jamesboy Nuchaikong/Shutterstock)

Ah, adolescence. A time of change, of navigating awkward social situations, figuring out who you are, maybe holding down that first job or focusing on extracurriculars — all while juggling the demands of school. And for most teens, managing all of this happens on too little sleep.

To help alleviate the lack of Z’s, experts in the U.S. have been pushing for school systems across the country to roll back the start times for middle and high school students. Now, a new paper in the journal Science Advances (titled, in part, “Sleepmore in Seattle”) could help throw some more weight behind that push.

A Later Start

Sleep researchers have known for decades that the circadian rhythm — the natural sleep/wake cycle — of teens is different from those of kids and adults. Normally, our bodies release certain hormones that play a big role in helping us wake up and feel drowsy at certain times. But for teenagers, this hormone release schedule gets pushed back, so they tend to stay up and wake up later.

Despite this biological difference, school start times for teens, especially those in high school, are usually earlier than for younger kids. Which makes it tough for teens to stay focused in school. “To ask a teen to be up and alert at 7:30 a.m. is like asking an adult to be active and alert at 5:30 a.m.,” says Horacio de la Iglesia, a biology professor at the University of Washington and one of the study’s authors, in a press release. But recently, many school districts have been toying with having their start times better align with adolescents’ internal clocks.

In the fall of 2016, Seattle Public Schools committed to the idea and changed the start time of all of its high schools from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. Capitalizing on this switch, which took over a year of planning, researchers from UW and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies followed the sleep cycles of two group of students from two of the high schools for two weeks.

In group one were roughly 90 pupils from both schools; the research team tracked them before the start time switch. But the second group, again made up of around 90 students from both schools, weren’t monitored until after the change. Regardless of group, each teen wore a wristband that tracked light and activity levels every 15 seconds to help the scientists pinpoint when they were asleep.

Though many critics of later school start times argue teens will just stay up even later, that wasn’t the case here. Generally, the students still went to bed around the same time. The end result was that they got more shuteye on weeknights when classes started later, going from sleeping six hours and 50 minutes, on average, to seven hours and 24 minutes. It’s still not the recommended minimum of eight hours per night that health experts recommend, but it’s an improvement. A significant one, according to the researchers. It’s “a huge impact to see from a single intervention,” says de la Iglesia.

A Spark for Change

de la Iglesia and his team hope the results they’ve seen will push more school administrators to follow the lead of districts like Seattle that have been willing to give the adjusted schedule a go. “School start time has serious implications for how students learn and perform in their education,” he says in the press release. “Adolescents are on one schedule. The question is: What schedule will their schools be on?”

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  • OWilson

    “School start time has serious implications for how students learn and perform in their education,”

    The poor dears!

    And so the vast chasm between liberal education and the real world they will be entering gets ever wider.

    Sure to be endorsed by Teacher’s Unions though, if not condusive to paying down your spiralling National Debt.

    The greatest generation was taught quaint old fashioned things like: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”! and “The early bird gets the worm”.

    However do the 17 countries that are ahead of the U.S. in education manage? :)

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

      US intellectual superiors

      1) Have teachers with triple digit IQs;
      2) Have students who embrace deportment;
      3) Actively exclude the congenitally inconsequential.

      • OWilson

        Showing up on time might be a good idea to promote among schoolteachers, too! :)

        See: “1 in 4 U.S. Teachers Are Chronically Absent” – Washington Post

        In my one year guest teaching assignment at a U.K. Grammar School, ostensibly to reopen a well equipped IT Department of same, before an ominous OFSTED Inspecton, I actually finished with more hours teaching science, history, English, business studies and geography, due to the chronic absteeism among the regular staff. Over 30%

        I didn’t mind, had a good time, got some good feedback from the students, and was asked to stay on.

        Not having a Teaching Certificate, or membership in the Teacher’s Union, notwithstanding!

      • teknowh0re

        Who allowed you internet access? Please give me your case workers phone number.

        • http://www.id2584378.sexyrvs.website disqus_qEBMPDukoO

          teknowh0re already

    • teknowh0re

      No one said “poor them”, but your response is pathetic honestly.
      Its bitter, defeatist, and useless.

      We should be improving things everywhere we can, especially in the lives of young adults. This way maybe they will be less ignorant than you. =)

      • OWilson

        Thanks for your comment! :)

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    To ask a teen to be up and alert at 7:30 a.m” is like having a job in the real world, being a soldier, or staking out a street corner at which to panhandle morning rush hour. Whining little πρικς, Grow a cerebral pair, strive for intellectual puberty, then date.

    “I’m depressed!” Remove yourself.. There is a queue vying to occupy your slot. If psychology had any traction at all, prisons would empty. Even psychology’s lies are irreproducible.

    • teknowh0re

      Youre missing the point. These aren’t adults, they are LEARNING, not just book smarts but how the world works. More importantly, as the piece tried to inform you- TEENS’ BRAINS ARE DIFFERENT FROM KIDS AND ADULTS.
      So its like asking most adults to begin work at 530am. MOST PEOPLE DO NOT start work at 530am. Most people who DO because they have to, are always poorly rested! There are exceptions, but they are exceptions, not the norm.
      You missed the points, all of them.
      Teens CANNOT fall asleep earlier to account for that 530am start time.
      Their bodies literally dont produce melatonin and other sleep/relaxation chemicals until much later in the night than kids or adults.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        Five years after puberty, you are an adult. Old enough to screw is old enough to do. I don’t care if they claim limp wrists, texting finger, or diversity. Save the drama for your mama. Get down and push.

  • Icabod

    Having taught high school I’ve notice how student sleep patterns change. One thing the study doesn’t seem to have measured is sleep during the summer vacation. What were the sleep patterns then?
    Another question is social media and electronic device use. I know many of my students were up late playing games and texting. It woul$ be interesting to remove electronic devices and see how sleep changes. (An expectation is many students would quit the study)
    Last, high school students can be expected to graduate and find full time jobs. How to they adjust to a early start time?

  • kapnlogos

    Going to bed earlier will have the same outcome.

  • Devin Hunt

    As a very busy high school student myself, I would strongly agree with a later start time. Being in five college level courses requires me to spend many nights up late studying. This school work is difficult to manage with extracurriculars such as sports. So, on average I probably get around 5 hours and 30 minutes of sleep. A later start time would help alleviate this in a few different ways for me. One way is that I would be more focused in school; I would be able to get more work done in class, being more alert allows one to be more efficient with their time. Another way this would benefit me is that the extra sleep would help with general stress levels and physical recovery from workouts and sports. A little extra sleep never hurts any high school student. Also, I’ve heard from multiple different sources that the average teenage brain is wired to ‘shut-down’ around midnight due to the melatonin production starting later than average adults, and that our minds don’t fully ‘wake-up’ until around 9-10 am. I can personally say that this is the case, as I don’t even feel tired sometimes until around midnight. So a later start time would more properly fit this seemingly natural sleep cycle.

    If a later start is not necessarily possible for schools, there may be other options. My school, for example, has snack break at 9:15 everyday. This allows us to socialize and wake ourselves up. Another solution could be doing a flipped classroom styled class, when the learning is done outside of class and class time is used for the homework and the teacher will help clarify concepts and provide help. I’ve done this before for some classes and doesn’t work for me personally, but I know others really enjoy this method.

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