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Later School Start Times Could Benefit High Schoolers

Oct. 21, 2015|426 views
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This week, we’ve been examining issues surrounding sleep and its role in health. To put it simply: sleep is one of the fundamental aspects of good health. There’s a reason we say: “Things will look better in the morning.” It’s because they inevitably do after some restorative rest.

We all need clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, and healthful food to eat in order to thrive and survive. Most folks also know that it’s important to get plenty of regular exercise. That’s about all one needs to be healthy, right? Wrong. Adequate sleep is the other indispensable component of health that’s routinely shortchanged by many Americans. To skimp on sleep is to flirt with disaster. Despite what they may think, few people can afford to cut back on the hours of sleep they need each day, without dire consequences. Inadequate sleep quickly affects the immune system, for example, not to mention the ability to think, learn, and reason well.

Your need for sleep changes throughout your lifetime, too. Babies, for example, require lots of sleep. Young children, do, too, albeit not as much as infants. Even teenagers tend to need more than the average of eight hours of shut-eye required by adults. Teens are also different in terms of their biorhythms. The natural, internal 24-hour circadian “clock” that determines when one sleeps and wakes shifts during adolescence. As a result, older teens have trouble falling asleep early enough to get their full nine or so hours of sleep, before needing to get up and attend school.

High school tends to start early in the morning, to accommodate the schedules dictated by school boards across the country. But in recent years, experts have begun to argue that this imposed—arguably unnatural—schedule takes an outsize toll on teens’ health, by forcing them into a state of chronic sleep deprivation. Better, they argue, to start school later in the morning, to accommodate young people’s needs.

The issue is about more than grumpy, hard-to-rouse teens. According to experts from the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Nebraska, current start times are damaging the health and learning abilities of youth. At age 16, for instance, they recommend start times of no earlier than 10:00 a.m. For 18-year-old students, the ideal start time would actually be 11:00 a.m. As researchers noted: “…in late adolescence the conflict between social time and biological time is greater than at any point in our lives.”

This is not about adolescent laziness, experts say. Genetics are at play, and most humans’ circadian rhythms shift by about three hours in adolescence. “An overview of the circadian timing system in adolescence leading to changes in sleep patterns is given, and underpins the conclusion that altering education times can both improve learning and reduce health risks,” researchers wrote, in a recent issue of the journal, Learning, Media and Technology.

Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster, Jonathan Kelley. Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: ‘let teens sleep, start school later’. Learning, Media and Technology, 2014; 40 (2): 210 DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2014.942666