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High school teachers long have dealt with groggy students in hallways and classes. What researchers now know, however, is that sleep cycles change during late adolescence, requiring teens to sleep longer and later. Most high schools operate on the worst possible schedule for teenagers. Administrators who have heeded the research and pushed back their starting times report fewer discipline problems and less tardiness, better attendance, and happier and more alert students. Included: Tips for changing your high school's start time.
Most high school teachers have witnessed it, especially during those first class periods of the day. One minute, they are talking to rows of attentive students. The next minute, foreheads and desktops merge as groggy students slump over, trying to nap unnoticed.
For years, older teenagers' sleepiness and vampire-like aversion to early morning hours were blamed on having too much fun too late at night. Learning to balance priorities was considered the cure -- and part of growing up.
Contemporary research, though, indicates that all the discipline and time-management in the world will not overcome teen biology. Studies consistently show that older teenagers' sleep clocks are set so they fall asleep later and wake later. Most high schools, however, start before 8 a.m., the worst time to find an alert teen.
Even with such consistent research findings, few school districts are pushing up high school start times. School officials cite complications with transportation and sports schedules, and concerns about younger students going to school too early.
Even a little extra time can make a big difference, however, according to long-time sleep researcher Mary A. Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at E.P. Bradley University Hospital in East Providence, Rhode Island. "The question is, can the schools give kids more sleep?" she said. "By moving the bar, they actually can give kids more sleep."
Administrators in high schools where classes start later talked with Education World about dramatic improvements in student attendance, behavior, and school climate after schedule changes were made.
"Some anecdotal information we've heard from parents includes: 'This has saved our family. It has reduced the stress in the morning,'" said Dr. Paul Highsmith, principal of Mercer Island (Washington) High School, which this year moved the starting time up 40 minutes -- to 8 a.m. "Kids like it. Teachers say the kids are not quite as zombie-like in the morning. So far, the results of a survey have been very positive."
FACING THE FACTS
Although sleep research is a fairly new area of study, the difference in adolescent sleep cycles was noted as early as 1913, according to Carskadon. The connection between sleep cycles and teen physiology, though, was made only recently. "In the 1990's, the pattern was seen repeatedly, but no one thought to attribute it to biological factors," she said. "It was attributed to teenagers' changing psycho-social lives. Biology is the newer piece."For most young people, starting school at 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. is not a good idea," Carskadon continued. "The numbers show pretty consistently that they [teens] are not getting enough sleep and are struggling. Sleep deprivation also leads to depressed moods, and a lack of sleep is a significant factor in car accidents involving drivers 15 to 24 years old. A lot of kids we interviewed said they had driven while sleepy or had fallen asleep at the wheel."
Dr. Mark Mahowald, medical director of the Sleep Forensics Associates (formerly Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center), said he is preaching that message to administrators, boards of education, parents, and any other audience he can find. "All of the research that has been done shows that older adolescents need more sleep than younger ones," Mahowald told Education World. "They fall asleep later and wake up later to get the sleep they need.
"Despite these two facts, almost all districts start the senior high schools first. We're sending them to school during the last one-third of their sleep cycles. It's comparable to adults getting up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. You wouldn't want to be making important decisions at that hour I think it's nuts. The sleep deficit builds up until they fall asleep at school or driving."
SETTING THE CLOCKS BACK
Administrators in Mahowald's own state have heeded his message; several Minnesota high schools were among the first to change their schedules, based on the latest sleep research.
The Edina (Minnesota) School District, which has about 7,100 students, redid its school schedules 6 1/2 years ago, after the Minnesota Medical Association sent adolescent sleep research findings to all superintendents in the state, and urged them to act on it, said Laura Nelson, a school district spokeswoman.
The high school opening time changed from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and everyone noticed the difference. "Teachers think the kids are more alert; they document fewer absences and tardiness in early classes," Nelson said.
Edina's superintendent asked Kyla L. Wahlstrom, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, to study the impact of the time change on the school population. Even the researchers were not prepared for the overwhelming support they found for the time shift. [See Later Start Times for High School Students.]
"We went in with 'tough eyes,' ready to report what was not working well," Wahlstrom told Education World. "But overall, the change was incredibly positive. Teachers were unanimously happy; they had more alert learners. Parents said their kids were easier to live with because they were more rested. And administrators said the whole temperament of the building calmed down; there were fewer discipline referrals.
"Kids said they were feeling more in charge of their learning: they were more awake, less depressed, and not falling asleep in school."
The one complaint: "Kids say they miss having time to hang out," Wahlstrom said.
To accommodate the high school time change, elementary school starting times shifted to 8:30 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Before and after-school day care is provided for younger students.
Making the case for a later start was easy in light of all the research, Nelson told Education World. "Once people had reasons -- and saw that the kids' sleeping late was not just laziness or indifference -- they supported it. There was no reason not to change."
Arguments against starting later -- that kids simply would go to bed later rather than get more sleep and after-school activities would be decimated -- have not panned out, said Nelson and Wahlstrom.
"Coaches considered this the death knell for athletics," said Wahlstrom. "But there was no negative impact on participation or the success rate." Few students reported staying up later, she added.
Many of the working students also reported feeling more rested. "Kids working 20 hours a week or more were unaffected," Wahlstrom said. "They would be exhausted anyway. For those kids who only work one night a week and weekends, this benefited them."
Minneapolis, an urban district, followed Edina a year later, shifting its high school start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., with similar positive results, said Wahlstrom. "It doesn't seem to affect one economic group more than another."
The Edina research has caught the attention of educators nationwide and beyond. "We've heard from every state and Great Britain," Wahlstrom said.
FROM SLEEPY TO HAPPY
While numerous educators may have read the Minnesota study, it takes more than research to convince school boards and administrators to change decades-old practices. Years of negotiations could result in the clock being pushed back mere minutes.
"It was a big issue to make a change," said Highsmith, principal of Mercer Island High School. This year the start time moved back 40 minutes to 8 a.m.
"I wish we could have started two hours and 40 minutes later," he added. "All the research, and the Minnesota study, are pretty compelling. The biggest hurdle is that people said if we started later, kids would just go to bed later. Generally, they go to bed at the same time."
The district avoided transportation scheduling conflicts by buying some high school students passes for the public bus system.
Administrators at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington, also decided starting later was the way to go. In September, Nathan Hale's day will start at 8:45 a.m., compared with the current 7:45 a.m.
"We are doing this as a health issue," said assistant principal Kathryn Hutchinson. "We have here a stack of information all pointing in the same direction. While there is no study showing that more sleep improves a student's grades, students who are awake learn better."
Interestingly, the majority of students do not favor the change. "They talk about the impact on jobs and athletics, and say they will just stay up later," Hutchinson said. Most faculty members support the move; those who don't, understand the reasoning behind it, she said.
The district first discussed changing times in 1996; when the superintendent asked if any schools wanted to try it, the Nathan Hale principal volunteered.
Convincing other adults of the need for change was hard as well. "Initially, there was a wave of hostility, and a lot of resistance from the transportation department," said Hutchinson. A solution was found, though. Since fewer than one-fifth of the high school's students qualify for transportation, Nathan Hale will shift some of them to public buses, reducing the number of school buses it needs next year from ten to five.
LOGISTICS CAN BE TOO MUCH
Not all districts can overcome the problems of geography and transportation. Even though it meant extensively retooling bus routes, Mesa County Valley School District 51, in Colorado, decided a few years ago it was worth it to give the high school students more sleep. "It started as an achievement issue; we thought if we started later, it would lead to higher achievement," said district spokeswoman Julie Heacock.
Mesa County Valley school buses spend a lot of time on the road; the district serves 20,000 students, many in rural areas, and encompasses 2,000 square miles. The district has four high schools.
Tragically, though, during a test of the new schedules in 1999-2000, two middle school students were killed while waiting in the dark for the morning school buses.
"Then the emphasis shifted to safety," Heacock said. "We did some research with the local weather station in developing a schedule, and now there are only ten days a year during the winter when some kids wait in the dark." The high schools' starting times shifted from 7:25 a.m. to 7:40 a.m. "We had wanted elementary students to start at 7:30 a.m. and the high schools to start at 8:30 a.m., but there were safety concerns, and we would have needed more buses."
OBSTACLES TO CHANGE
All of the recent research and anecdotes indicating teens are happier and more responsive when school starts later, though, often are no match for entrenched practices, educators and researchers said.
"It's a very complex, very convoluted issue," said Heacock
"School schedules are set by a host of different considerations," Brown's Carskadon noted. "The decision-making is widely dispersed. This also is a system with a lot of inertia in it."
"Resistance to changing start times comes from lots of directions, not the least of which is tradition," added John Nori, a former high school principal, now spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "They [sources of resistance] include transportation, [after-school] jobs, practices, and internships."
Despite formidable opposition from tradition and inertia, school leaders need to remember what is best for students, Dr. Mahowald said. "Not a single excuse [for not changing times] we've heard relates to education. None of the excuses have the word 'education' in them. We should send kids to high school in a condition that promotes learning rather than interfering with it."
An interview about adolescents and sleep with Mary A. Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at E.P. Bradley University Hospital in East Providence, Rhode Island.
Sleep Forensics Associates
Information about sleep disorders and the importance of sleep from SFA, formerly The American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF)
See a report, Adolescent Sleep Needs and Patterns: Research Report and Research Guide. NSF is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety by achieving understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, and by supporting education, sleep-related research, and advocacy.