October 01, 2014
   
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The Teenager Sleep Schedule vs. the School Bell
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The Teenager Sleep Schedule vs. the School Bell

 

As children enter adolescence, they change physically, emotionally and biologically. These changes manifest in their bodies, their health, and their social/academic functioning. One major change is in the timing of the sleep/wake cycle. The inability of teens to alter their daily schedules to adapt to their bodies' needs has been identified as a significant source of physical and emotional stress.

Sleep-Deprived Teens With Shifting Biological Clocks

Studies have shown that most teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived, despite their efforts to catch up by sleeping extra late on weekends. Their internal clocks are accurately telling them to stay up later and sleep later. But middle schools and high schools tend to start quite early and often teens have to awaken between 5-6 am to get to school on time. Lack of sleep has been shown to contribute to depression, inattention, poor behavior, and academic failure. Teenagers ideally require nine hours of sleep per night. Few are able to get it.

The percentage of students who slept at least 8 hours rose from 16% to half.

Sleep/wake cycles change in adolescence. Their bodies tell them to fall sleep later, and, similarly their systems are not ready to awaken as early as they used to in childhood. Biologically, the timing of the secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland changes. Melatonin levels are typically very low during the daytime, rise before sleep time, and decrease again when it is time to awaken. In adolescence, these peaks and valleys are shifted towards a delayed sleep and wake time.

Socially, teenagers have more extracurricular activities and are more active later into the evening. They engage in more stimulating activities and parents' control over their bedtime decreases. Unfortunately, although it becomes easier to stay up later, for most teens, school starts early and one study showed that about 70% of teens had to be awakened by an adult to get to school on time.(1)

Starting School Later Helps

But what if school started later? A recent study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, looked at the impact of changing the time school starts had on teens. The idea was to start later to allow high schoolers to sleep longer(2).

At the small private school in the study, where students are primarily boarders, the start of the school day was delayed by 30 minutes. There were no changes in the lights-out schedule. The students completed surveys at the beginning and end of the two- month study period. The investigators monitored the students' sleep habits, daytime fatigue, mood, and health. The teachers reported on class attendance, tardiness, and behavior. Two hundred and twenty-five students participated in the study.

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