If you have had or currently have a teenager, or if you ever were a teenager, you know how challenging school mornings can be. How many times is the snooze button hit before the somnambulant teenager finally puts her/his feet on the ground? How many yells of, “You’re going to be late,” are repeated before that sleepyhead puts her/his feet on the ground and heads to the bathroom? There are biological reasons this scene is being repeated in home after home, generation after generation, and The American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) wants you to know what a serious health issue this has become.
American teenagers suffer from a lack of sleep. Middle and high school students are chronically affected by this health risk. Obesity, depression, absenteeism and tardiness rise, academic performance and public safety fall due to sleepiness. Last month The American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) released a study documenting the severity of this epidemic. And to its credit, the AAP has proposed a solution: start middle and high school later in the morning. While most secondary schools start between 7:15 and 8:15, the AAP recommends a start time of no earlier than 8:30 for middle and high school. No surprise to those who have experienced and/or studied teenagers’ sleep patterns. Some secondary schools even offer classes during something called “zero” period which is an even earlier start to the school day and occurs before first period which as we have seen is often too early for students to be alert and “ready to learn.” One unintended ironic consequence of “zero” period is the actual amount of learning that goes on – close to zero because the students are so sleepy and tired. The optimal level of sleep necessary to be high functioning teenagers? Eight and a half to nine and a half hours per night. Where the later start time has been implemented, behavior and atmosphere at school improves.
School start time is a topic of particular interest to me. Over 15 years ago my friend Anne and I joined the Denver Public Schools “Calendar Committee” to encourage a later start time. We had studied the available research and went so far as to contact two teenage sleep experts, both of whom are still involved in the issue: Mary S. Carskadon from Brown University and Kyla Wahlstrom from the University of Minnesota. In fact, Ms. Wahlstrom who was focusing on a Twin Cities’ suburban district, wanted to include DPS in her study as her urban district. Anne and I could not get the District’s interest in this, and the big recommendation from the calendar committee that year was to move the school year start date to before Labor Day. The rationale for that decision was if DPS students had more time for test prep, standardized test scores would improve. Fifteen plus years later we know how the extra time has played out! And most of our students are sweltering in non-air conditioned classrooms in August.
Some people try to pass off the sleepiness as kids being lazy or kids being irresponsible for not going to bed earlier. Some even say it is good for teenagers to have to be up early. That will prepare them for work. The AAP study carefully and scientifically refutes these myths. The truth is teenagers often cannot fall asleep before midnight for two biological reasons: a reduction in the production of melatonin, and an altered “sleep drive.” Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep-wake cycle (circadian cycle) decreases as a person ages. Melatonin causes drowsiness. Babies have a lot of melatonin. As people age the melatonin output declines and along with this reduction the circadian cycles shift as much as two hours a day. The altered “sleep drive” results in increased difficulty for teenagers to fall asleep earlier, and it takes longer to fall asleep. What are the consequences of this? It produces teenagers who truly are unable to go to sleep before 11 or midnight. Yet teenagers still need over eight hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Ignoring this need can have lifelong consequences.
As with many institutional changes, there are school-based reasons this seemingly simple reform meets with opposition. When Anne and I pushed for this change in the late 1990’s, we were met with pushback from what we called the three T’s: transportation, teams, teachers. Now of course, all of those T’s are trumped by an omnipresent T – TESTING. Today’s education “reformers” believe students need more time in school, including after school tutoring and double blocking for students who are behind in order to raise test scores.
There are societal barriers to changing start times as well: athletic practices and games (a “t” from above), after school employment, and caring for younger siblings to name the most prevalent. But if school truly is about students first and teaching and learning, why aren’t we looking at new ways to optimize learning opportunities? We have had many years of education “reform” based on high-stakes testing, privatization, longer school days, and teacher bashing. These “reforms” have been a failure. (Previous posts STOP and Chutzpah provide the data). Isn’t it past time for the nation to be having an honest and relevant conversation about public education? If education is truly about kids, shouldn’t their well-being be at the forefront of any reform? Maybe, just maybe, kids don’t need more time in school for more learning to occur. Maybe kids just need to be awake and alert for the hours they are in school.