Snooze to Succeed
By Ivelina Velikova
The typical high school student rolls sleepily out of bed before 7:00 AM. They stumble out of the house at around 7:30 AM, and are expected to be ready to learn just after 8:00 AM each day. Within the first hour of school, their head dips sleepily onto their crossed arms. Unable to stay alert, the student misses out on portions of the lesson taught in class. Later that night, they frantically read and reread the textbook in attempt to understand what they have missed. The student stays up to complete their work, beginning their next day exhausted once more.
To a typical teen, this pattern comes as no surprise. 69% of students report insufficient sleep on the average school night (Eaton et al., 2010). Studies show that students’ constant exhaustion has negative impacts on their education and well-being. An experiment limiting students’ sleep over just a few days left students less alert and efficient, and more helpless, forgetful, anxious, and depressed (Lund et al., 2010). Both parents and children reported that sleep-deprived teens were prone to emotional outbursts and exaggerated responses to small triggers. Such poor emotional regulation can potentially trigger pre-existing vulnerability to clinical mood disorders, many of which emerge during adolescence (Baum et al., 2014).
Sleep deprivation is also associated with lower academic achievement and a decreased motivation to learn (Owens et al., 2010). As it turns out, widespread exhaustion among students prevents them from doing exactly what school is meant to facilitate: learning.
Research on adolescent sleep deprivation is chilling. Clearly, students’ constant exhaustion is disastrous to their health. What can be done to remedy this? There seem to be two ways to ensure more sleep for students: have them fall asleep earlier, or wake up later. Let’s break down both of these possibilities.
Students stay up on school nights due to a variety of factors. They may participate in extracurricular activities that run well into the evening, as well as work part-time jobs to financially support themselves and their families.
Even for teens without such commitments, falling asleep earlier in the evening may be easier said than done. Melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain, helps regulate the body’s sleep–wake cycle. When darkness falls, the brain increases melatonin production, promoting sleep. As puberty progresses, melatonin production switches on later at night, making it difficult for older teens to feel sleepy early at night or awake early in the morning. In light of both social and biological evidence, expecting students to sleep earlier in the evening is simply not realistic.
Let us explore an enticing alternative: giving students the opportunity to sleep in. Certainly, most adolescents would appreciate this option, but is there evidence that this will benefit their education?
One study examined more than 7,000 high school students whose school district had switched from a 7:15 AM start time to an 8:40 AM start time. Compared with students whose schools maintained earlier start times, students with later starts reported getting more sleep on school nights, being less sleepy earlier in the day, scoring higher grades, and experiencing fewer depressive symptoms (Carpenter, 2001).
Another study of over 200 high school students explored a smaller adjustment in school start time, from 8 to 8:30 AM. After only a short time delay, average school night sleep duration increased by 45 minutes, and students went to bed an average of 18 minutes earlier. The percentage of students getting less than 7 hours of sleep decreased by 80%, and those reporting at least 8 hours of sleep increased by almost 40%. Daytime sleepiness, depressed mood, and fatigue were all reduced. Both class attendance and student motivation improved. Such studies show that a modest delay in school start time is associated with significant improvement in adolescent alertness, mood, and health (Owens et al., 2010).
These results are staggering, and the evidence speaks for itself. If we want students to succeed, we must ensure that they are healthy, awake, and on-task in class. Evidence strongly suggests that even a small delay in school start times can have immense benefits to students’ health and academic success.
This seems to be a foolproof solution—but is it feasible? Unfortunately, delaying school start times isn’t always possible. School bus times must be coordinated at the board level between elementary, middle, and high schools. Changing school start times must also occur at the provincial or state level to coordinate sports and other activities.
Fortunately, educators and lawmakers have begun paying attention to the overwhelming evidence supporting the need to improve students’ sleeping habits. Noting the effectiveness of later start school times, systemic change is in the works.
In 2014, U.S. House of Representatives member Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill that would financially support school districts in pushing back school start times. Lofgren affirms that adjusting school schedules “could do a lot more to improve education and reduce teen accidents and crime than many more expensive initiatives.” Across the United States, lawmakers at the state level are introducing bills to not only provide financial support, but also prevent school start times earlier than 8:30 AM. (Carpenter, 2001).
Altering school start times requires slow and systemic change, but the state of exhausted teens is too severe to delay action. There are many changes that could easily be initiated now, starting with education. Teachers, parents, pediatric doctors, and adolescents themselves need to be more aware of teenagers’ lifestyle patterns, their biology, and the potential health problems associated with lack of sleep. Education alone may offset sleep loss, as young people learn the importance of maintaining regular sleep schedules. The National Center for Sleep Disorders Research plans to release a supplemental sleep curriculum for 10th-grade biology classes, addressing the biology of sleep, the consequences of insufficient sleep, and the major sleep disorders. Similar curricula are being developed for children of both middle- and elementary-school ages (Carpenter, 2001).
Change is on the rise, as educators and policymakers are becoming more aware of the evidence backing adolescent sleep habits. A combination of social and biological factors make an ideal school day start and end later than most current systems allow. While these changes are being made, education is the key to informing adolescents, caregivers, educators, and healthcare providers of the importance of sufficient sleep to facilitate healthy development. Hopefully, the sun will soon set on sleepy students, and create a new generation of engaged students who are awake, alert, and excited to learn.
Carskadon, M. A., Wolfson, A. R., Acebo, C., Tzischinsky, O., & Seifer, R. (1998). Adolescent sleep patterns, circadian timing, and sleepiness at a transition to early school days. Sleep, 21(8), 871–881.
Eaton, D. K., McKnight-Eily, L. R., Lowry, R., Perry, G. S., Oresley-Cantrell, L., & Croft, J. (2010). Prevalence of insufficient, borderline, and optimal hours of sleep among high school students: United States, 2007. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 399–401.
Lund, H. G., Reider, B. D., Whiting, A. B., & Richard, J. R. (2010). Sleep patterns and predictors of disturbed sleep in a large population of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(2), 124–132.