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Dr. Gail Gross Headshot

Sleep for Success: Why Teens Need to Start School Later

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It's early on a weekday morning, so early that the streets are still filled with darkness. You walk into your teen's room. The alarm is buzzing. You reach over to turn it off while attempting to wake him or her. You wonder why this is such a daily struggle and why your lazy child can't ever seem to wake up on time for school.

What you may not realize is that your child is not lazy at all. In most cases your teen is just not getting enough sleep. Now, schools across America are recognizing this and starting to take action accordingly.

The push for later high school start times

There is a movement to change high school start times to 30 minutes later, a notion supported by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. When you look at the neuroscience behind sleep patterns and teens in particular, you can see why pushing school start times back by a mere 30 minutes can give teens the best opportunity for a positive and successful school experience -- and so much more.

Understanding teen sleep patterns

Science has long known that teens have a different biological clock than adults. Though adults need seven to eight hours of sleep, teens -- whose bodies are still growing -- need between 8.5 to 9.5 hours each night. Their circadian rhythm, which regulates the sleep hormone melatonin, directs them to a later bedtime and awakening.

When teens get enough sleep, the benefits are bountiful:

  • Sleep restores the brain and metabolism, while helping memory, learning, and emotional balance.
  • Sleep has been known to help stave off depression, erratic behavior, truancy, absenteeism, impaired cognitive function, obesity, and even car accidents.
  • Sleep helps students have better focus, impulse control, homework results, improved attendance, concentration, sociability, and alertness during the day.

When teens do not get enough sleep, the problems can be very serious and affect almost every aspect of their lives. They lose the ability to focus and stay on task, they experience fatigue, mental lapses, and symptoms of ADHD, including hyperactivity and attention deficit. When your teen is stressed through the loss of sleep, the amygdala enlarges, making him or her more emotional in decision-making, while the hippocampus narrows where learning and memory live. As a result, not sleeping long enough can affect not only decision-making ability, but also creativity.

Proof that a late start works

Researchers at the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center in Rhode Island studied the impact of a 25-minute delay in school start time on teens. The results proved that even this small time change could make a world of difference.

  • Students' overall sleep time increased by an average of 29 minutes.
  • The percentage of students sleeping eight or more hours per night more than doubled, from 18 percent to 44 percent.
  • Students experienced significant reduction in daytime sleepiness, as well as improvements to mood and focus.
  • Student intake of caffeine dropped.

While this study eventually resulted in the school returning to its normal start time (and, not surprisingly, students returned to their sleep-deprived struggles), more schools are taking note -- and taking action.

In just the last two years, high schools in California, Oklahoma, Georgia, and New York have adopted later start times. They join schools in Connecticut, North Carolina, Kentucky and Minnesota who have already implemented later start times. The Seattle school board currently is researching the issue, with advocates hopeful that a later start time will go into place by the 2016-2017 school year, if not sooner.

Such a small change, with such big benefits

As a parent, you know that life with adolescents is tough enough without adding undue stress to their schedules. So if you support your teen and honor his or her sleep biology, you will be rewarded with a healthier, happier, and more academically successful child. There is a lot at risk here for such a small consideration of 30 minutes per day.

I'm for starting school 30 minutes later. How about you?