It is a ritual well-known to the parents of teenagers, a daily struggle that annually begins anew with the start of the school year. It is, of course, the task of awakening a sleeping teenager to begin preparations for the school day.
For many, this is akin to prodding a hibernating bear. And while parents for generations have attributed this difficulty to sloth on the part of the teenager, modern studies have suggested that inherent biological factors play a role in the sleeping patterns of adolescents. As advocacy group School Start Time notes on its website, “Subsequent studies have confirmed puberty’s onset marks the beginning of a ‘phase shift,’ with adolescents going to bed later and rising later than younger children.”
Which brings us to renew a call for school districts to alter the daily start times for middle schools and, particularly, high schools. Locally, high schools in the Vancouver Public Schools system typically begin classes at 7:30, while those in Evergreen Public Schools start at 7:45 — and studies suggest that moving the schedule back one hour would improve student performance. Mary A. Carskadon, who has studied the issue at the Brown University School of Medicine, said, “Given that the primary focus of education is to maximize human potential, the new task before us is to ensure that the conditions in which learning takes place address the very biology of our learners.”
Failing to adjust to the internal clocks of teenagers has negative impacts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, teens who do not receive adequate sleep are more likely to perform poorly in school; engage in unhealthy behaviors; be overweight; eschew physical activity; and suffer from symptoms of depression. In recent years, the federal government has supported a later start to the school day, with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noting, “So often, we design school systems that work for adults and not for kids.”
Therein lies the conundrum. While changing school hours might be beneficial for students, it also would call for myriad changes for families and for school districts. Starting classes later would push back the schedule for after-school extracurricular activities such as athletics, create conflicts with after-school jobs or day care duties involving younger siblings, and force districts to adjust bus schedules for elementary and secondary schools.
Yet those drawbacks seem light when weighed against the cost of having teenagers begin the school day in a sleep-deprived state. As a 2010 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health noted: “The consequences of this sleep deprivation are severe, impacting adolescents’ physical and mental health, as well as daytime functioning.” For example, studies have shown that teens who start the school day later have significantly fewer automobile accidents than those with a typical school schedule.
The frustrating part of the issue is that researchers have spent the past 20 years or so advocating for a later school day, yet relatively few school districts have explored the issue. As SchoolStartTime.org summarizes: “While teenagers are notorious for causing their own sleep difficulties — staying up too late, playing with electronic gadgets, and generally burning the candle at both ends — sleep loss among adolescents is confined primarily to school nights.”
As states and school districts rightly demand more and more from students in the way of academic achievement, they also would be wise to explore all avenues to help facilitate that success. In the meantime, let the daily struggle begin.