The end of summer always brings a bit of melancholy to our house—all of us reluctant to give up sleeping late, days with relatively little structure, evening swims and lazy, late-night barbeques with family and friends.
But as fall approaches this year, there is one thing my 17-year-old and I are both looking forward to. For the first time in its nearly 70-year history, his Los Angeles school will begin at 8:30 a.m., a half hour later than it has in the past.
This, according to a recent recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is exactly what all middle and high schools should be doing. Encouraging adolescents to get enough sleep is crucial to improving their health and the quality of their education.
The CDC’s report comes a year after the American Academy of Pediatrics released its own policy statement on the subject, urging schools to delay start times to at least 8:30 so that more teens will get the minimum 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep they need. Research shows that most teens get seven hours or less of shuteye a night, leaving them chronically sleep-deprived. And too little sleep leads to serious health risks, including depression, stress, obesity and car crashes induced by drowsiness.
“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety and academic performance,” says Anne Wheaton, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s Division of Population Health and the lead author of its study. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”
Upon learning of his new extra half hour of school-day sleep, my son, Nathaniel, was incredulous. “Seriously?” he said. “That is low-key great.” I couldn’t agree more.
Indeed, given the CDC’s finding that in 40 states, at least 75 percent of public schools start earlier than 8:30, we are feeling lucky to be outliers.
“We know if you miss an extra hour of sleep as a teenager it’s like drinking a shot of alcohol,” says William Perkins-Tift, the academic dean at Oakwood Secondary School who helped oversee the schedule change, part of a broader move to a trimester block system, which will also cut down on homework and allow for deeper exploration of individual subjects. “And if you have a campus filled with kids who are doing that—well, it’s clearly not the most conducive environment for learning.”
By asking policy makers and school districts to start school later, the CDC and Academy of Pediatrics have signaled an important shift away from blaming students for not going to bed earlier and their parents for not enforcing bedtime rules. The science on sleep has long shown that teenagers’ internal clocks make if more difficult for them to go to bed early.
“We can tell teens to go to bed at 10, but their bodies are going to go to bed at 11,” says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and book author who has written extensively on the subject of sleep. “We have failed to take sleep deprivation seriously. We need to pay attention to what science is telling us about kids and not do what is convenient for schools or parents or bus schedules. We need to do what’s best for the student in terms of learning and emotional development.”
As others have recently reported, a study from the University of Minnesota found that at eight high schools in three states that switched to a later start time, students had better attendance, grades and standardized test scores. And negative tendencies, including substance abuse and tardiness, decreased.
Oakwood’s Perkins-Tift prefers to view the quest for more sleep as a partnership between the school and its parents.
“A later start time is something that was institutionally within our control,” he says. “It shows our parents that this is a priority. But there are also things parents can and should be doing at home to foster better sleep habits.”
Borba agrees. Parents cannot change a teenager’s circadian rhythm, but they can take steps to make it easier for their son or daughter to get a decent night’s rest. Here are a handful of suggestions:
- Create and help your teenager stick to a regular routine. A consistent bedtime and wake time promotes better sleep.
- Once you establish a regular schedule, make sure that all electronic devices—laptops, televisions, video games and cell phones—are turned off at least a half-hour before bedtime. “Flashing images affect REM,” Borba says. “Those flicking lights signal to your brain to stay alert.”
- Be a better role model: According to the National Sleep Foundation, parents with electronics in the bedroom were more likely to have children with electronics in their bedroom. (Eighty-nine percent of adults, and 89 percent of children ages 15 to 17 have at least one electronic device in their bedrooms.) And parents who leave devices on also have children who leave devices on.
- Make sure your teens avoid energy drinks or anything with caffeine, especially late in the day or evening. “Many kids drink them because the pressure is so great to keep studying,” Borba says. “But they rob sleep later on.”
- Show kids the data on sleep deprivation. “After all these are the same kids that are staying up late studying AP science,” notes Borba. “They’ll get it.”
Meantime, there’s one other thing parents can do: Be an advocate for change. Talk to the appropriate administrators at your child’s school and encourage them to start at 8:30 or later. With all of the scientific research that’s been done at this point, it’s time to put this issue to rest.
Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder.
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