Let them sleep: Doctors say to start the school day at a ‘healthy’ time

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    (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Teens need about eight and a half to nine and a half hours of sleep every night, but at lots of schools the morning bell rings around 7:20 a.m.

    “Do the math, if they can’t fall asleep until 11, they are kind of biologically programed to wake up at around eight in the morning, when many of them are required to be awake and fully functioning in the classroom,” said Judith Owens, director of Sleep Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. She’s a pediatrician and sleep researcher. 

    School systems all across America are starting high schools later so classes begin closer to students’ natural wake-up time. Last year, parents pushing for the switch got an endorsement from doctors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools begin at 8:30 a.m. or later.

    Owens, author of the academy’s policy statement, says toddlers and school-age children are naturally “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” very early in the morning. Around puberty, a child’s internal clock shifts.

    Adolescents are less awake in the morning, and before bedtime, around 9:30 or 10 o’clock, they experience a “second wind” – an actual biological burst of alertness, she said.

    “Trying to get them to “just go to bed” and fall asleep at 9 o’clock simply isn’t going to be possible for the vast majority of kids,” Owens said.

    Owens says the science is clear: when schools delay start times, students experience improvements in indicators of physical and mental health. One district even had fewer teen car crashes.

    If your teenager is moody, maybe it’s not just hormones. Owens says chronic sleep deprivation could be to blame too.

    Sleepy learning

    “Their bodies are in the classroom, but their brains are back on their pillows. Trying to teach them in the middle of their night, which is absolutely—economically, educationally—huge—and health wise–waste of time and money,” sleep researcher James Maas said.

    He’s retired now, but for decades, Maas taught a large introductory psychology class at Cornell University. Along the way, he decided to stop teaching classes before 10 a.m.

    “I would see people falling asleep before I even said anything,” he said.

    Maas says one of the brain’s nighttime jobs may be to reboot our ability to learn.

    Matthew Walker a researcher at the University of California Berkeley has said it’s like clearing the informational e-mail box, so the brain’s ready to receive new e-mails the next day.

    There’s a lot we don’t know about what keeps the brain so busy at night, but newer research suggests that short bursts of electrical activity called ‘sleep spindles’ help the brain convert short-term memories to long-term learning.

    Maas says those spindles happen most frequently at the end of a full-night’s rest when teens cut-short their sleep to get to school on time.

    Maas has been studying sleep long enough that he remembers a time when electroencephalogram (EEG) machines represented brainwaves as ink squiggles on paper. As study participants slept, their brainwaves changed, and Maas says the sound of the pens scratching on paper changed.

    “It sounds something like this: cha, cha, cha, psht. That psht represents a cascade of calcium produced by the brain to go into the motor cortex which is responsible for hand-eye, hand-foot coordination,” Maas said.

    Without sleep, Maas says it’s harder for teens to learn a complicated football play or to master a tricky piano chord.

    Maas says adequate sleep boosts learning in and out of the classroom.

    What’s harder to know is how chronic deprivation in adolescence might hurt health later in life. The list of possible associations and spiked risks is long: heart disease, depression, early onset type 2 diabetes, obesity.

    ‘Equity’ debate

    In some places around the country, the school start time conversation has becomes a battle over bussing costs, parent work schedules, childcare and rush hour traffic.

    “It’s about extracurricular activities. It’s hugely in many communities about athletics and sports, it’s probably the biggest most consistent push back, I hear,” said sleep researcher Judith Owens. She says sports boosters and students wonder: “How are we going to get to practice on time? How are we going to play the neighboring community whose school schedule is different from ours?”

    Fairfax County Virginia revised its bell schedule this academic year so now high schools begin at 8 a.m. or later. The switch cost about $5 million dollars and required two dozen new buses. Owens and her team were consults on the project. They held more than 40 meetings with all sorts of community members including janitors and teachers.

    High school is also starting later in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. Some parents lobbied to begin an hour later, but in the end they settled for a 20-minute delay.

    Head of the teachers union, Tom Israel says educators in Montgomery County doubt that either an hour or 20-minute delay make a meaningful difference to academics.

    “If parents weren’t getting their kids in bed by midnight, that’s a family issue not a school issue,” said Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association.

    The county has about 160,000 students and one fleet of school busses. The buses collect high school students first then return to local neighborhoods in a second wave to pick up middle-schoolers. Then there’s a third run to transport elementary students. Any change sets off a domino effect. To start the day later for high schoolers, the district now starts elementary school later. And to make the dominos fall in place, the school board also extended the school day for those younger kids.

    “Their transportation is taking place smack dab of morning rush hour and dismissal is happening as rush hour is beginning in the afternoon,” said Valerie Coll, a 3rd grade teacher at Flora M. Singer Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland.

    “It has been horrendous.”

    The switch is only a few months old, so perhaps those commuter headaches will ease, but Coll says there are more pressing negative consequences for her students.

    Their day is longer, and Coll says kindergarteners and first graders don’t learn much after four in the afternoon.

    “By the end of the day, they’re tired,” said Coll, a teachers-union leader who’s taught in the district for nearly three decades.

    Teachers-union chief Tom Israel says there was an ‘equity’ concern in the run-up debate.

    A group of vocal high-school parents from one part of the county pushed for the delayed start time, he said, and his union tried to elevate the voices of other parents–especially poorer families.

    “[They are] counting on their older children to not necessarily be well rested because they’ve got to make the lacrosse practice, but they’re counting on them to come home to help take care of their younger sibling, or they’re counting on those students to be able to perhaps take a part-time job to help care for the needs of the family,” Cull said.

    Mentally and physically tired

    In Narberth, Pennsylvania, a suburb outside of Philadelphia, 11th grader Mia Bollmann is supposed to get up at six in the morning.

    “I try my best. I normally have to set another alarm for 6:05, and then 6:10, and then 6:15, and then 6:20, and then normally by 6:20 I’m out of bed,” she said.

    Mia—who has braces and plays tennis—admits she’s the cranky one in the morning. She and her brother, Sven, have to be at the bus stop before seven.

    “My mom’s screaming at me to come eat something because I need to eat before class, so I’m rushing downstairs, I’m stuffing my face with some food, running upstairs brushing my teeth and sprinting down to the bus stop,” Mia said.

    “It’s down to the minute, and then they run,” Mia’s mom, Melissa Bollmann, said.

    She has mixed feelings about moving back the start of school. She’d love it if her children had an extra hour as long as it’s used for sleep and not gaming or social media.

    Bollmann says the children’s sleep debt builds up through the week. But researchers say even though teens are notoriously late sleepers on the weekend, you can’t really ‘make up’ for missed sleep.

    “Mondays we’re really really good and we try hard. Tuesdays, well, we try really hard again,” Bollmann said. “Thursdays there’s a lot of tests often—so they might have to do an extra push on Wednesdays and Thursday nights which gets it later. Then if they’ve had to volunteer, or sports or whatever it might be, it just pushes it all back. So by Friday we are fried,” Bollmann said.

    Hours of homework can keep kids up–and all those glowing screens don’t help. Cell phones and computers give off a blue light that blocks melatonin–a hormone that’s supposed to help us sleep.

    Mia’s parents asked her to leave her cell phone downstairs before she goes up to bed, but that didn’t work for very long.

    “I guess because I’m a teenage girl and I miss a lot of texts from my friends,” she said.

    Ninth grader Sven said: “I’m not totally with the one-hour later thing.” He says pushing back the start of school would delay dismissal and might mean less time in the evening to hang out or study with friends.

    But Mia’s all for it—and willing to sacrifice.

    “A lot of people complain that if we started school later there’d be no time for sports, but I personally think that if you want to commit to a sport, you should get up at the time that we get up now for school,” Mia said. “We should be willing to practice our sports in the mornings before school starts.”

    That’s one idea.

    More than 1,000 schools across 70 districts have made the change. School systems big and small are trying creative solutions to give kids—what advocates say is – a “healthy” start time.

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