Bowing to Biology: Teens, Sleep, and School Schedules

Should Schools Start Later for Teenagers? A teenage girl sleeping on a desk next to a computer

Go to sleep late. Wake up early. Drag through the school day tired, unfocused, and cranky. Unfortunately, that’s the typical scene for the nation’s chronically sleep-deprived teens caught between their changing biology-driven sleep cycles and their traditional schools’ unchanging logistics-driven early school hours.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), this “catch 22” for sleepy teens must change. Since teen biology won’t change to suit schools, schools must change to suit teen biology. Here’s why:

Teens and Sleep Facts

As children enter puberty, their natural sleep cycles change, shifting anywhere from one to three hours later. While teens still need about 8½ and 9¼ hours of sleep nightly to function well academically, socially, and physically, they generally can’t fall asleep before 11 p.m. due in part to changes in their melatonin levels. (Melatonin is the hormone that helps us fall asleep.)

With only 15% of the nation’s high schools starting after 8:30 a.m., this means that the majority of the nation’s high school students are struggling along with fewer hours of sleep than they need to grow and learn—sleep that cannot be simply “made up” by sleeping in late on the weekends. With a median middle school start time of 8:00 a.m., younger students are sleep-deprived, too.

This divergence between biology and school policies leads to a range of problems for teens. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), teen sleep deficits can:

    • Limit teens’ ability to “learn, listen, concentrate, and solve problems”
    • Impair memory
    • Lead to aggressive or inappropriate behavior
    • Contribute to weight gain and acne outbreaks
    • Contribute to drowsy driving and, consequently, auto accidents

The NSF calls this sleep crisis a vicious cycle, with insufficient sleep affecting teens’ moods and their moods contributing to insufficient sleep. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it a public health issue that contributes to a range of risks from obesity to auto accidents.

School Start Times: Bowing to Biology or Logistics

Backed by recent studies, in August 2014 the AAP released recommendations that middle schools and high schools begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m.—bowing to adolescent biology and enabling teens to get more hours of sleep.

In a three-year study of 9,000 public high school students, University of Minnesota researchers found that later start times enabled 60% of students to get at least eight hours of sleep nightly. In turn, more sleep led to improved student performance in core subject areas, reduced rates of tardiness and absenteeism, and a reduction in the number of car crashes among teen drivers.

Despite support from AAP, the CDC, and organizations such as the National Association of School Psychologists, however, school districts across the country face numerous obstacles to more student-focused start times, including transportation costs and logistics, family scheduling concerns, and opposition from athletic programs and small businesses dependent on a teen workforce.

Online Schools: Ahead of the Curve

For online school students, there’s a certain amount of schedule flexibility. Study, sports, and extracurricular schedules are set by Learning Coaches and students based on family schedules and students’ interests and learning styles. Teen students take increasing responsibility for their work, discovering their own peak times for study, work, sleep, and play based on their individual rhythms. That’s a discovery that will serve them well in high school and beyond.

Has online school improved your teen’s offline sleeping patterns?

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