It’s That Time of Year Again
School’s back in session, and any parent knows how hard it is to get their teenagers out of bed in the morning. According a 2015 CDC study, public schools nationwide usually start classes at 8:03 AM, and in New Jersey, public middle and high schools average an 8:00 AM start time. Most experts recommend that adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 get 8-10 hours of sleep per night in order to have healthy development and higher performance during the day.
Biological Changes in Teens Affect Sleep Patterns
For students beginning school at these average start times, getting the recommended amount of sleep per night would require them to go to sleep at 9:00 PM. However, sleep researchers have shown that teenagers are on a later sleep-wake clock than children and adults, causing them to naturally fall asleep around 11:00 PM. Therefore, waking up a teenager at 6:00 AM to get ready for school is often the equivalent of waking a typical adult out of a deep sleep at 4:00 AM.
By the end of high school, most American teenagers average about 7 hours of sleep per night during the school week. The CDC states that sleep deprivation can often lead to obesity, reduced physical activity, symptoms of depression, unhealthy risk behaviors, and poor performance in school or work. Wendy Troxel, a renowned sleep researcher, says in her recent TED Talk, “In fact, many of the, shall we say, unpleasant characteristics that we chalk up to being a teenager – moodiness, irritability, laziness, depression – could be a product of chronic sleep deprivation.”
School Policies Slow to Change
With all of this research concerning teenagers’ sleeping habits, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended in 2014 that middle and high schools begin classes no earlier than 8:30 AM. Currently, only 18% of the nation’s public schools start at this time or later. As many districts stagger bus schedules, having middle and high school students go in earlier and younger children arrive later, many officials believe this change would not be cost effective because districts would have to purchase more buses and hire more drivers.
However, the RAND Corporation just released an exhaustive study which claims that changing the start of classes to 8:30 AM in public middle and high schools would actually save the U.S. over $9 billion a year. The study states that allowing teenagers to get the recommended amount of sleep at night would increase academic performance leading to overall higher lifetime earnings, and it would decrease the rate of car crashes involving drowsy teenagers. These projected savings would far outweigh the costs for adjusting school districts’ bus schedules and upgrading school infrastructure to account for later dismissal times.
A recent bill introduced in the California legislature would require a minimum 8:30 AM start time for the state’s public middle and high schools. If the bill and its implementation are successful, perhaps this evidence would kick start a nationwide change that may ultimately benefit the country financially and would definitely benefit our teenagers’ personal health.
How to Promote Good Sleep Hygiene in Teenagers
According to Slate author and School Start Later California advocate, Lisa Lewis, “teens are often still seen as the root cause of their sleepiness.” While research about teen’s biological sleeping patterns demonstrate that this is not always the case, distractions from electronic devices and busy schedules surely can contribute to sleep deprivation in teens. If your child’s classes begin before the recommended start times, there are still a few simple steps you can take to promote good sleep hygiene.
- Schedule a regular bedtime and wake time: While many teenagers may be resistant to having a “bedtime”, the CDC says that adolescents with parent-set bedtimes usually get more sleep than those whose parents do not schedule one. This practice is beneficial for adults and children as well.
- Dim the house lights during the evening: Teens who are exposed to more light at night are more likely to get less sleep.
- Implement a media curfew: Turn off any electronic devices including cell phones, televisions, computers, and tablets at least an hour before bedtime. Consider removing any of these distractions from the bedrooms as well.
- Limit caffeine intake: Many sleep-deprived teenagers turn to energy drinks and coffee in order to stay alert during the school day. High caffeine intake, especially late at night, could affect sleep behaviors and quality.
- Contact your local school district: If you believe your child’s school should have a later start time, get involved! Bring the issue to school administrators or at your next PTA meeting.