Schools Waking Up to Teens' Unique Sleep Needs

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Brown University Prof. Mary Carskadon thinks most U.S. school systems should pay close attention to what she found in the saliva of teenagers.

If they did, she said, high schools would start later than they do, and teachers would educate students about a subject as basic as reading and math: sleep.

Carskadon, who teaches human behavior and is director of sleep research at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, led a team of researchers who helped prove that -- biologically speaking -- teenagers really are out of it early in the morning.

The researchers measured the presence of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin in teenagers' saliva at different times of the day. They learned that the melatonin levels rise later at night than they do in children and adults -- and remain at a higher level later in the morning.

"Children learn from kindergarten on about the food pyramid," Carskadon said. "But no one is teaching them the life pyramid that has sleep at the base.

"Add to that the disrespect that sleep gets when schools say you have to be there at such an early time. So why should they think sleep is important?"

Issues surrounding sleep -- who needs how much and when -- are usually given short shrift in efforts to improve student achievement. But modern brain researchers say it is time that more schools faced the biological facts.

Sleep deprivation can affect mood, performance, attention, learning, behavior and biological functions, said Stephen Sheldon, chief of sleep medicine at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and an associate professor at Northwestern University.

"Sleeping is like eating," Sheldon said. "It is performing a biological function that is required."

Teenagers have long complained that starting school about 7 a.m. -- the typical start time for many high schools -- is cruel and inhumane. But some adults tend to blame the griping on their behavior -- procrastination that leads many teens to stay up late to do homework, or nightly marathon phone sessions with friends. Now, computer games and instant messaging have made it even more alluring to stay up.

"People tell me that changing school start times to later is just mollycoddling the kids," said Kyla Wahlstrom, interim director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. "I'd say they are people who don't want to accept the fact that there is a different biology for teens."

That might be one reason that it's not unusual to find a high school parking lot at 7 a.m. filled with students clutching cups of coffee.

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