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Wednesday
Sep032014

Later school start times for teens! Yes!

A new school year has begun and teens across the country are dragging themselves (or being dragged by parents…) out of bed long before they’ve gotten the 9 to 10 hours of sleep they need.  It is little comfort for them that the long-awaited recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics for middle and high school start times to be no earlier than 8:30 a.m. has just been published.

As someone who studies and speaks about sleep locally and around the country, I am aware of the widespread sleep deprivation among babies, children, teenagers, and adults in our culture today.  Economic pressures on families that result in two parents working outside of the home, social pressures for children to be involved in activities late in the day, and the 24/7 use of electronic devices have created a world in which we either struggle to get the rest we need or devalue sleep altogether. 

Researchers in the field of adolescent sleep have been advocating for later high school start times for more than a decade.  The research of Mary Carskadon (Brown University) documents changes in the adolescent brain that cause a shift in circadian rhythms.  This shift means that teens, in comparison to younger children, do not get sleepy or fall asleep until much later in the evening compared to younger children.  Teens, however, still require 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night.  This phenomenon and the added activities and responsibilities taken on in the teen years (such as after school jobs, more homework and athletic practices) lead to what Dr. Carskadon describes as a “perfect storm” in the lives of teenagers.

This “perfect storm” is causing an epidemic of sleep-deprived adolescents, right at the time when they are being asked to perform at their very best levels, both in academic and extra-curricular activities in preparation for college, athletic pursuits, and adulthood.  Because sleep deprivation greatly impairs our nervous systems, it hampers teens’ abilities to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, retain information and cope with stress.  Not a recipe for success, to be sure!

When school systems delay their start times, there are immediate results.  Students are more alert in classes, improve their grades, perform better in sports, have better attendance rates, have less depression and, as noted by parents, are friendlier, happier, and more relaxed.  In addition, 1) teens gained one hour of sleep each night because their bedtimes didn’t change despite school starting later and 2) they were able to complete more of their homework during school hours because they were more alert and able to be more efficient with their time.

Communities generally have a complex reaction to this recommendation.  The seriousness of the situation can become lost in the discussion about changing bus schedules and family routines.  Change is hard, but it may be helpful to remember that before communities began to bus children to school, schools began around the time recommended. 

It is essential to help communities better understand the need for this change. The general public needs to know how critical sleep is for development (from infancy to adolescence), how much it impacts our overall health and ability to successfully manage the “ups and downs” of daily life, and its significant role in memory and learning.   I urge you to join me in supporting later school start times for our teens!

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