Nan Austin

Way to raise test scores, lower obesity, reduce teen accidents: Let teens sleep in

After all the debate about Common Core, the obesity epidemic and discipline practices, what might help kids learn the most, live the healthiest and behave the best could be simply to get more sleep.

A study by researchers from the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School and the University of Nevada released this month has added scientific heft to what parents and high school teachers already know, that groggy teens are not at their best in the morning.

Titled “Synchronizing Education to Adolescent Biology: ‘Let Teens Sleep, Start School Later,’ ” researchers led by Paul Kelley lay out a case that the problem goes beyond yawning through first period. Students starting school before their circadian rhythms are ready do worse in school and have more health problems.

The U.S. Air Force Academy found the same effect in a three-year study on first-year cadets, detailed in a paper by University of California, Davis, researchers in “A’s from Zzzz’s? The Causal Effect of School Start Time on the Academic Achievement of Adolescents.”

Despite the evidence, fewer than 1 in 5 high schools nationwide – and none I know of here – follow the science and start later, notes a Centers for Disease Control report issued Aug. 7 based on U.S. Department of Education data from 2011-12. The surveys found a correlation between early school days and risky behavior in addition to serious health issues.

“Adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight; not engage in daily physical activity; suffer from depressive symptoms; engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco, and using illicit drugs; and perform poorly in school,” the report notes in its first sentence.

The surveys showed less than one-third of high school students get eight hours of sleep on school nights, at a time in their lives when doctors say they should be getting nine.

Late adolescence, that critical transition time for brains and bodies, is when the sleep cycle most differs from adults – by about three hours, research shows.

Elementary students can work with an 8:30 a.m. start time, according to the “Synchronizing Education” study. But by age 16, teens should not be starting school before 10 a.m., and by 18 classes should begin at 11 or later, the team concluded.

“A 7:00 alarm call for older adolescents is the equivalent of a 4:30 start for a teacher in their 50s,” notes the study, adding that ignoring this mismatch “leads to systematic, chronic and unrecoverable sleep loss.”

The research takes on conventional wisdom about teens as being too lazy to get up and grumpy because they stayed up late.

“Educators tend to think that adolescents learn best in the morning and if they simply went to sleep earlier, it would improve their concentration. These assumptions reflect societies’ prejudice in favor of early risers in adulthood,” the study says.

It then goes on to explain why in a technical section that lost me at “suprachiasmatic nuclei of the hypothalamus,” but the overarching message was clear: Kids need their sleep. Just because they have reached grown-up size does not change that.

Knowing what would be best for kids, however, is a long stretch from making it happen. Switching high schools to what researchers say is needed means starting classes at 11 a.m. instead of 8, and ending at 5 p.m. instead of 2.

Some sports teams practice and school activities happen well after 5 already to accommodate a working coach or adviser. But some might need to meet before school instead of after.

School lunch and dinner would replace school breakfast and lunch on campus. After-school programs would become before-school programs. Teacher and bus driver contracts would have to be retooled – no small thing.

Even an hour’s change has shown improvement, with Wade County in North Carolina documenting a 2-percentage-point gain on standardized tests after a busing switch delayed getting kids to school. Interestingly, the biggest change came among kids who had been doing the worst.

But at the end of the day, the tradition of early school starts came from fitting adolescents’ schedules to what works for adults. It was predicated on the “early to bed, early to rise” ethos for farmers and factory workers, geared to parents racing off to jobs instead of heading home from them.

Will adults be willing to restructure their own lives to suit what the kids need? Time will tell.

The research article cited is Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster & Jonathan Kelley (2015) “Synchronizing Education to Adolescent Biology: ‘Let Teens Sleep, Start School Later.’