Alaska Sleep Education Center

Are High School Start Times Bad for Your Teen's Sleep?

Posted by Kevin Phillips

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on Aug 18, 2014 11:38:00 AM

teen asleep in school

As a parent of a teenager, you've probably found yourself thinking "teenagers are just plain lazy!" They stay up much later that everyone in the household and are the hardest to wake in the morning. You may even have gotten a concerned phone call from one of their teachers saying they have trouble staying awake in their classes. And on weekends, if they don't have morning jobs or activities, they often sleep in until around 10 a.m. or later. So what is the deal with these teenagers? Are they really just lazy, or is there something more going on here? Alaska Sleep Clinic wants to address these questions and shed some light on whats really going on and what can/should be done for our teens.

Contrary to popular thought, teenagers today are busier than ever, especially during the school year. Their schedules are often packed with class attendance, after-school sports and activities, part-time jobs, household chores, and homework. With all of the demands on teenagers, they must be exhausted! And they are. But they're still not getting enough sleep every night. Why?

exhausted teenHow much sleep does a teenager need?

Teenagers require more sleep at night than adults, around 8.5 to 9.25 hours. With most high schools starting classes at 7:30 a.m., this usually means that teenagers need to be up around 6 a.m., placing their ideal bedtime around 8:45-9:30 p.m. But most teens don't go to bed until around 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Which begs the question: If they're so exhausted from lack of sleep, why don't they just go to bed earlier?

Around the age of fourteen, your teenager enters a development stage called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS). During this phase, the brains of teenagers change in that they no longer produce the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin at the same time as adults and younger children. In teens, melatonin is usually secreted between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. There is many speculative theories as to the cause of DSPS, ranging from modern societal pressures, to an exaggerated shift in the body's internal clock during puberty, to a belief that in ancient times, teenagers were charged with protecting the village at night from dangerous creatures that a less alert adult may miss. Whatever the explanation behind DSPS, it can have serious consequences in teens if not addressed.

body_clock225Biologically, teenagers' bodies don't wind down till much later than adults and younger children, but they're still being required to start their day later than their younger counterparts. This makes it harder for teens to rise in the morning and stay alert in class during the day. On weekends teenagers tend to crash harder from lack of sleep during the midweek, and play catch up by sleeping in. And while this is better than not sleeping, it tends to throw off their sleep patterns and biological clock.


Solutions to Teenagers' Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Advocates from the scientific community are pushing to encourage school districts to rearrange the school start times to address teenager's irregular sleep needs. This can include pushing all school start times back an hour or two or switching the start times of high schools  with elementary schools. Younger children go to bed much earlier than teenagers and adults, and therefore are much more able to make the early school start times and remain awake and alert during class hours.

Many school districts around the country are changing their school start times to address this issue after it was proven successful for the Minneapolis School District, which pushed the start times of 7 high schools back from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. As a result of the later start time for high schoolers over a three year period, the district noticed a positive trend in attendance, alertness of students in classes, a decrease in tardiness, fewer disciplinary referrals, and even a 9% increase in students graduating.

If the delayed start time has proven successful in this school district as well as others that have followed suit, why hasn't this trend picked up nationally?

Counter Arguments to later high school start times

With the mounting evidence of the negative impact of lack of sleep in teens, and the proven results of the benefits of a later start time, most school districts continue to keep the same schedules. Why?

  • schoolbus_225Many districts believe that the costs in bus transportation would increase. Buses for high schools usually cover a larger area, and therefore have to start earlier. Changing school start times would increase the need for more buses, and more paid drivers.

  • High schoolers go to bus stops early in the morning when it is still dark outside. Many believe that having their younger children wait for the buses in the dark is a safety concern.

  • High schools generally start earlier because many after school activities rely on daylight. Pushing school start times back would mean having to let student-athletes out of classes earlier.

  • There's still a wide held belief that earlier start times help better prepare teens for the workforce later.

  • Many parents rely on their older children getting out of school earlier so that they can watch their younger siblings rather than pay for daycare.

We, at Alaska Sleep Clinic want to know what you think of the ongoing debate. Do you believe that your school district needs to investigate the benefits of a later start for high schools? Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages? Leave a comment below and share with us, and others, your position on this argument.

asleep in school


Topics: teens

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