By Sophia Glinski
Hearing the beeping of her alarm clock, she groggily reaches out a hand trying to find the off button. She lets her head fall back to the pillow. Forcing herself to sit up, she flips on the light, the brightness of the room a harsh awakening. She drags herself out of bed and stumbles downstairs, her eyes heavy and swollen. All she wants to do is climb back into her cozy bed. Resisting the temptation, she continues to get ready for school.
Like many teens, this girl suffers from sleep deprivation. Sleep is a vital part of a person’s well-being, highly important for brain development and overall health. When you sleep, your brain strengthens the neural pathways that synthesize the information you learned that day. During the teenage years, the consequences of not getting enough sleep are heightened. According to the National Sleep Foundation, not getting enough sleep can limit academic success, lead to aggressive behavior, cause one to eat unhealthy foods, intensify the effects of alcohol, increase the use of caffeine and nicotine and contribute to illness. Unsur- prisingly, lack of sleep is correlated to depression. According to NSF’s 2006 Sleep in America poll, “many adolescents exhibit symptoms of a depressive mood on a frequent if not daily basis, and these teens are more likely to have sleep problems.” The National Sleep Foundation says teens should get eight to 10 hours of sleep every night. However, with extreme homework loads, after school activities, jobs and other tasks, 85 percent of teens don’t get the recommended amount of sleep.
Lack of sleep is a common complaint of many students. Sydney Wender ’19 does many after-school activities, so she has to start her homework late at night. She normally goes to bed around 11:30 p.m. and wakes up at 6:45 a.m. In the morning she hates getting up because she feels so tired. Even during first and second periods of the school day, she says, “I’m an eight on a scale of one to 10 for exhaustion.” Towards the end of the day, Wender finds herself irritable while with her friends.
During adolescence, biological sleep patterns shift. It is a natural tendency of teenagers to stay up late at night and wake up later in the morning. Dr. Mary A. Carskadon of Brown University found that older teens had later circadian rhythm timing based on melatonin secretions in saliva samples. In adolescence, the melatonin secretion occurs at a later time, which makes it difficult for teens to fall asleep earlier in the evening. The melatonin secretion also turns off in the morning, which explains why it is harder for teens to wake up early. Some argue that it’s the teenager’s fault if he or she is going to bed late. However, the reality is that teens don’t have much control over the time they can fall asleep. If you are a teen and can’t fall asleep until midnight, you are not alone. One study found that only 15 percent of teens reported sleeping eight and a half hours on school nights. Jerusha Conner, an associate professor of education at Villanova University, researched the amount of sleep that students got at some schools across the country. Students from her sample reported sleeping an average of only 6.8 hours. That zombie-like feeling you get early in the morning is inevitable unless changes are made so that teens can get the sleep they need.
Middle and high school start times must be pushed later. With early school times, teens’ circadian rhythms are being interrupted. If bell times are pushed back, teens will be more academically successful, and they will live a healthier lifestyle. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. However, the majority of high schools in the United States start before 8:30 a.m. and 43 percent start before 8 a.m. Carskadon explains, “Even without the pressure of biological changes, if we combine an early school starting time—say 7:30 a.m., which, with a modest commute, makes 6:15 a.m. a viable rising time—with our knowledge that optimal sleep need is 9 and a quarter hours, we are asking that 16-year-olds go to bed at 9 p.m. Rare is a teenager that will keep such a schedule.” It is unreasonable for school administrators to assume that teens will be able to get the recommended amount of sleep. The public agrees. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2002 Sleep in America poll, “80 percent of respondents said high schools should start no earlier than 8:00 a.m. each day.” Wender agrees that schools should start later. With the amount of work she has to do every night, she needs at least another hour of sleep.
While some worry that starting school later will interfere with learning, the opposite appears to be true. Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota in- vestigated the impact of later start times on student performance af- ter the Minneapolis Public School district changed the starting times of seven high schools from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. The attendance rate, student alertness and the enrollment rate improved, and there was less student-reported depression. In addition, schools that push back start times find that the students get one more hour of sleep every school night instead of staying up later. These students get five more hours of sleep a week.
Gigi Ciulla ’19, another MHS student, says, “If I could get another hour more of sleep every night, I wouldn’t go to bed later. I would use the extra hour of sleep to my advantage.” In Edina, Minnesota, school times were also pushed back. They changed the high school start times from 7:25 to 8:30 a.m. In the year before the time change, “math/verbal SAT scores for the top 10% of Edina’s 1,600 students averaged 683/605. A year later, the top 10% averaged 739/761.” Starting school an hour later improved students scores by 56 points for math and 156 points for the verbal SATs.
On the flip side, Carskadon and researchers investigated what would happen to teenagers if the school starting time was changed from 8:25 to 7:20 am. They found that in the 10th grade, the average amount of sleep the students were getting dropped from seven hours nine minutes to six hours 50 minutes. Nearly half of the students showed a reversed sleep pattern that is similar to narcolepsy. Although the students who exemplified this pattern didn’t have narcolepsy, their circadian rhythms were significantly interrupted.
There have been legislative reforms made to push schools times back. In 1999, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California worked to pass the “ZZZ’s to A’s” Act, which would encourage schools to move start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. In 2014, she worked with the National Sleep Foundation to “introduce legislation that addresses the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, wellbeing and performance.” They
hope that the public will decide to support this bill.
Although changing school start times is a solution for teens to get more sleep, it is not the only thing schools can do. Carskadon says, “It’s important to add sleep to the curriculum at all grade levels and make sleep a positive priority.” This will help kids and teens to learn about the importance and necessity of sleep. Parents can also set boundaries around screen time. Students are often distracted by electronics while doing their homework. These interruptions can make students procrastinate, making homework take longer than is necessary. Lastly, teachers should work to assign a more manageable workload. This will ensure that students are not up all night working through tedious, excessive assignments.
Of course, there are challenges to pushing school start times back. Transportation, athletic programs, extracurricular activities, student employment, impact on families and other factors are a few things that need to be considered. But to ignore the reality of sleep deprivation among teens has serious repercussions as well. It is time for school administrators to pay closer attention to the research on the adolescent brain and the positive effects of later start times. More well-rested students will mean better learners. Increased sleep will lead to teens with more focus and productivity, and less depression. Schools need to make sleep a priority.