The analogy has been used before: Waking a teenager is akin to prodding a hibernating bear.
Because there is much scientific and anecdotal evidence to suggest that teens have different body clocks than pre-teens or adults, a decision by Evergreen Public Schools to adjust class times at its high schools is rooted in sound logic. Starting in the fall, the school day at the district’s comprehensive high schools — Evergreen, Heritage, Mountain View, and Union — will begin at 8:40 a.m. rather than the current 7:45 a.m.
“Research shows that by shifting start times at the high school level, missed days and tardiness is reduced and academic success improves,” Superintendent John Deeder said in announcing the change. Evergreen officials also noted some of the findings from a study at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research:
• 60 percent of students obtain at least eight hours of sleep per school night when start times shift to 8:30 a.m. or later;
• Teens getting less sleep report significantly higher instances of depression symptoms, greater use of caffeine, and greater risk for substance abuse;
• And academic performance improves with later start times.
Other studies have echoed these findings, even concluding that teens with a later school time have fewer automobile accidents. As the National Sleep Foundation reports: “Key changes in sleep patterns and needs during puberty can contribute to excessive sleepiness in adolescents, which can impair daytime functioning. … Adolescent sleep deprivation is largely driven by a conflict between teens’ internal biological clocks and the schedules and demands of society.”
In other words, the difficulty of waking that slumbering bear is not simply a result of teens staying up too late. There are well-documented biological reasons that teens desire to sleep later, and adjusting the start of the school day can enhance their academic performance and their retention of knowledge. For too long, high schools have attempted to force teens into a schedule that serves adults well but makes it more difficult for the teens to learn.
With that in mind, altering the school day for high schools will require some adjustments on the part of families. A later start time — and later dismissal time — will be a burden for some parents. It will lead to extracurricular activities going later in the day, could make it more difficult for teens to land after-school jobs, and could impact day care duties for teens who have younger siblings. It also will impact high school teachers, many of whom also are parents of younger children.
But, as 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, then a new task before us is to ensure that the conditions in which learning takes place address the very biology of our learners.”
That is the impetus behind the change in the Evergreen district, and it is a change that likely will have positive results. Many other school districts across the state and across the nation have made similar alterations to their high school schedules, and we encourage Vancouver Public Schools and other districts throughout Clark County to consider doing the same.
Because for teenagers, sleep is a bear, um, bare necessity.