FEATURES: Would Teens Benefit From Later School Start Times?

(Photo courtesy healthination.org)

By Ethan Harrigan – Staff Reporter

Brian Zirkel is a sophomore at Jonathan Law High School, balancing a large course load, including an AP class, with playing varsity tennis for the Law team. He usually gets only 6-7 hours of sleep due to the homework he has to do after his extracurricular activities, and because of the school start time of 7:20 a.m.

“I’m really tired whenever I get to school and it’s hard to get out of bed a lot of times,” Zirkel said.

Zirkel and many other high school students often suffer from the early start times Connecticut schools have, not getting close to the 9-10 hours of optimal rest teens are supposed to get.

The lack of sleep can lead to many different deficiencies and studies have shown that schools with later start times may be beneficial.

The sleep teens lose out on when they wake up early is Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the phase in which dreams usually occur. Lower amounts of REM sleep have been linked to behavior and memory problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, not engage in daily physical activity, suffer from symptoms of depression, engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco, and using illicit drugs, and perform poorly in school. Lack of sleep can also limit your ability to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems, as well as making you aggressive or impatient.

Additionally, the National Sleep Foundation(NSF) said that, “Many teens suffer from treatable sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.”

In an NSF poll, 73% of adolescents who reported feeling unhappy, sad, or depressed also reported not getting enough sleep at night and being excessively sleepy during the day.

Teenagers are proven to have a different biological clock than adults, going to sleep later and statistically needing 9-10 hours of sleep. The onset of puberty lengthens the daily cycle in adolescents and also decreases the rhythm’s sensitivity to light in the morning. These changes cause teens to fall asleep later each night and wake up later each morning relative to most children and adults. These biological changes are often combined with poor sleep habits including irregular bedtimes due to academic responsibilities, and the presence of electronics in the bedroom.

“Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence — meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m.,” the National Sleep Foundation says.

School start times like those in Connecticut make teens get up early and this is the largest factor preventing them from getting the amount of sleep they need. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of youth released in 2017 shows that only one-quarter of high school age adolescents reported sleeping the minimum recommended eight hours each night.

“We’ve put them in between a rock and a hard place where their biology to go to bed later fights with societal expectations,” said Gideon Dunster, Graduate Student studying sleep at the University of Washington. “All of the studies of adolescent sleep patterns in the United States are showing that the time at which teens generally fall asleep is biologically determined—but the time at which they wake up is socially determined.”

Many teenagers in response to their late nights during weekdays, try to catch up on sleep by oversleeping on weekends however this doesn’t entirely benefit them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Although this weekend oversleeping can help offset the weekly sleep deficit, it can worsen circadian disruption and morning sleepiness at school.”

The AAP has a substantial body of research that has demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement. The AAP has suggested that high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to allow teens the chance to get a better amount of sleep, but most Americans start school earlier.

According to the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools in the U.S. started before 8:30 a.m.

“To ask a teen to be up and alert at 7:30 a.m. is like asking an adult to be active and alert at 5:30 a.m.,” said Horacio de la Iglesia, Professor of Biology at the University of Washington.

In 2017, the Seattle school district changed the school start time from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. Researchers gave every student wrist activity monitors to track their sleep. The wrist monitors were worn by the students all day for a period of two weeks, and recorded  light and motion data every 15 seconds, which was used to determine when the students were awake or asleep. Researchers from the University of Washington found that after the time change students got 34 minutes more sleep on average than the earlier start times while bedtimes stayed relatively the same.

“This study shows a significant improvement in the sleep duration of students – all by delaying school start times so that they’re more in line with the natural wake-up times of adolescents,” De Iglesia said.

It also improved the academic performance of the students involved. After Seattle schools changed start times to nearly one hour later, researchers looked at a group of 88 students taking the same biology classes. They also wore wrist activity monitors and kept a sleep diary. The data collected showed improvement in academic ability.  For example, students who took the biology class after the later start time got final grades that were 4.5 percent higher than students who took the class when it started earlier. That could be the difference between a B and an A. This was due to several benefits of the later start times and added sleep.

Students could be more punctual to their morning classes, not having to roll out of bed, eat breakfast and rush to school.

“When we started at 7:50 a.m. there would always be stragglers who were having a hard time getting here,” said Cindy Jatul, who teaches biology at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Students were groggy and noticeably different from students who took her class later in the day. “For example, if I gave them a project in the lab, they would be the most likely class to mess up,” she said.

The number of students who were tardy or absent decreased significantly, because the later start times gave families in all economic situations more time to get to school. Delayed start times may even lead to a decrease in the achievement gap between students from low and high socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We need to give every bit of equity we can for kids in lower socio-economic families,” said Dr. Cora Collette Breuner, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Teens were more alert and attentive in classes, an improvement from the previous situation. The later start times enabled them to fully participate in class with less drowsiness. Franklin High School science teacher A.J. Katzaroff said “there was lots of yawning” when school started at 7:50 a.m. Students had a hard time engaging in the work or in brief discussions which is a reflection of the amount of sleep they were getting.

“Some of the best practices in science education have students talk, discuss and investigate together and those are all very hard when the brain is not fully powered,” Katzaroff said.

Starting school later also helped students combat the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation, such as fatigue, depression, and memory and cognition impairment.

While Connecticut schools don’t start at 7:50 anyways the same results might hold true if the same was done. The problem with school districts is that they have already been accustomed to the start times set in place and don’t want to change them because it’s easier to do what has already been done. Other factors are the extracurricular activities and jobs undertaken by teenagers that are directly after school ends, as well as changing bus schedules. However, schools changing start times could result in healthier students who have less of a need for nurses and counselors. There are pros and cons for both sides of this issue and school districts attempt to look out for what teens want and need.

“I would feel better with an extra half hour of sleep,” Zirkel said. “I wouldn’t have school start at 8:30, but yeah I favor a later start time.”

For now, with summer on the horizon, Zirkel and other high school students sleepily continue their schedules heading into finals and the last full week of school, trying to get the amount of sleep they need.

(Some information courtesy futurity.org, sleepfoundation.org, cdc.org, neatoday.org, npr.org, pediatrics.org)

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