Are Your Students Getting Enough Sleep?
Probably not. According to the American Psychological Association the nation’s adolescents are at risk for cognitive and emotional difficulties, poor academic performance, accidents and psychopathology. It seems that adolescent sleep patterns have been poorly understood for some time. It was once assumed that as children matured their need for sleep diminished. Children in mid-childhood sleep for an average of 10 hours per night, whereas adolescents get less than 7.5 hours by the age of 16. However, over the last couple of decades studies have shown that in order to perform optimally adolescents need considerably more sleep, 9.2 hours per night, as opposed to the 7.5 – 8 that adults need.
Why aren’t our teenagers getting the sleep they need? On one side of the sleep equation is the “phase shift” experienced during puberty. Researchers have long observed the phenomenon that teenagers go to sleep later than younger children but assumed that this shift was mainly due to social factors such as television, socializing, after-school jobs, etc. However, several studies have shown that biology plays a key role with adolescents’ circadian timing systems switching on later at night. On the other side of the equation is a factor that we can actually do something about. Early start times for schools have most teenagers in class by around 7:30 in the morning, which means that many of those students had to catch the bus as much as an hour earlier. And the results aren’t pretty.
How serious are the effects of this sleep deprivation? Studies show and teachers can tell you that sleepiness in class causes discipline problems and trouble focusing. Others studies show that sleep deprivation plays a role in traffic accidents and is associated with ADHD and depression in teens. One study conducted by Amy R. Wolfson, PhD, of the College of the Holy Cross, and Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, of Brown University Medical School, found that students who had poor grades got significantly less sleep than their high-performing peers.
What can be done? Some schools have taken steps to adjust their schedules to accommodate the change in adolescent sleep patterns. This New York Times article reports on an experiment conducted at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts. The schedule was adjusted to provide the students the opportunity of an extra hour of sleep. The results were compelling and perhaps predictable. By various measures academics, student health, and athletic performance all improved significantly.
Eagle Hill School, another Massachusetts boarding school, went a step further, making a fixed change to the schedule that allowed for a later wake-up time in the dormitories and an extended breakfast and morning preparatory period that have classes starting at 8:40 A.M. Anecdotally, some teachers report a great improvement in alertness and student engagement. With some sleep experts arguing that early high-school start times are practically abusive to our sleep-deprived young people, it’s about time more schools woke up and smelled the coffee.