This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A stroll through an elementary school at the start of the day is an electric experience. Boys and girls demonstrate boundless energy, sometimes to the point of being a challenge for their teachers.
However, down the street at the local high school, sleepy heads abound. Many students appear listless, exhausted and seemingly comatose, particularly during first period.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that weekly 28 percent of high school students sleep at least once during class and 14 percent are tardy due to oversleeping. What's going on here?
First, adolescents simply need lots of sleep. The transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by epic advances in physical, cognitive and social development. Sleep renews the body and mind to allow healthy development to continue. It may surprise many that on average adolescents require 9.25 hours of sleep a night. Only 10 percent of 15 to 17 year olds meet this requirement on school nights, while 56 percent receive less than seven hours of sleep. As a result, the majority of adolescents are sleep-deprived at school. No wonder many are found sleeping at their desks.
Second, a large body of research indicates that with the coming of hormonal changes that mark the onset of adolescence, the natural sleep-wake cycle in most teens resets. Sleepiness is delayed by about two to three hours in the evening and wakefulness arrives later in the morning. Teens often do not feel sleepy until 11 p.m. and under natural conditions wake around 8 a.m. This schedule provides the needed nine hours of sleep.
However, in reality the average student arises at 6:30 a.m., not 8:00 a.m., in order to arrive at school on time. Adolescent biology is at odds with the early start time of most high schools resulting in many sleep deprived students. Clearly first period is better suited for sleeping than learning for many students.
Research identifies numerous consequences associated with sleep deprivation in teens. Included are lack of attention to learning tasks, poor retention of information taught, poor grades, increased risk of auto accidents, increased disciplinary problems, poor judgment, weight gain, suicidal thinking and many others.
Some school districts across the nation have tackled this problem by moving to later high school start times. Data from the 2011-2012 academic year indicate that 18 percent of high schools have done so. The ideal start time is elusive, however. The Centers for Disease Control suggest high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., while researchers at Oxford University cite 10 a.m. as a best time. A plethora of research supports the move. Benefits have included improved performance on standardized tests, improved attendance, higher grade point averages, less disciplinary referrals and fewer auto accidents involving students.
Later start times sound like a silver bullet. Let's not be naïve. This solution comes with conflicts and fails to address other conditions that inhibit teen sleep. Among problems are reduced opportunities for student employment, absence of high school students to tend and monitor younger siblings in the afternoon, the need to move students in younger grades to earlier start times in order to employ a single fleet of buses to serve all grades and a common schedule for all high schools to facilitate inter-school athletics and other events.
Furthermore, adolescents contribute to their sleep deprivation by practicing poor sleep hygiene habits such as engaging in stimulating activities prior to bedtime, ingesting caffeine and failing to maintain sleep schedules and routines. Many young people sleep in on weekends in an effort to catch up on lost sleep. Such changes in the sleep schedule result in difficulty falling asleep on successive evenings.
A movement is afoot across the nation to adjust high school start times to be compatible with adolescent biology. This is an important example of science informing social policy.
In Utah we would be wise to explore the efficacy of later school start times as our woeful funding of education compels us to employ every resource and efficiency available. But studies would require money and actual implementation even more dollars. Where would such resources be found?
Perhaps funds that are allocated by the Utah Legislature to bring federal lands under state domain could be diverted. High school students might sleep less and learn more in school, and the public would be rid of an unpopular legislative fetish.
John M. Seaman, Ph.D., is a retired school psychologist and currently an adjunct professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College.