School & District Management

Why Schools Should Make Sleep a Priority

By Marva Hinton — March 08, 2016 5 min read
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Sleep. We all know kids need it, and without it, they don’t perform as well in school.

As we’ve reported in the past, the National Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better align with the natural body rhythms of adolescents.

But it’s not unusual for the first-period bells to ring at many middle and high schools much earlier than that.

So how are these kids affected?

In honor of Sleep Awareness Week, we spoke to an expert in adolescent sleep. Lisa J. Meltzer is an associate professor of pediatrics at the National Jewish Health in Denver. She was the lead researcher on a groundbreaking study on the differing sleep patterns between home-schooled students and students who attend public or private school. The study, which was first published in October 2014 in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine, found that home-schooled students wake nearly 90 minutes later than their peers in traditional school settings. It was the first study to compare the groups in order to research their sleep patterns.

We recently spoke to her via phone about her work and her passion for sleep. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

What are the key ways your study found sleep differed for home-schooled students versus those in public or private schools?

The biggest difference you find is what time they wake up. Homeschool students are waking up—the average time was almost 8 o’clock—which is about the same time that public and private school students are starting school. So the additional sleep that homeschool students get is obtained by sleeping later in the morning.

Why are they able to sleep later?

Public and private middle and high school students on average start sometime between 7 and 8 a.m., which means that the buses arrive sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. So public and private school students often have to wake very early to catch the bus to get to school. Homeschool students don’t have that restriction in terms of either a school start time or having to wake in order to get to school on time and so it allows them to sleep later in the morning.

Despite your research and that of others, there are still people who see these reports and say teens just need to go to bed earlier. Can you explain why it’s not that simple?

When teens go through puberty, all of their hormones change, and one of those hormones is melatonin, which is a clock regulator. It helps to keep your internal clock on schedule, and as you go through puberty the timing of melatonin that’s released moves later on average by about one to two hours. And what that means in simple terms is that even if teens went to bed earlier they can’t fall asleep earlier. Their body is not ready to fall asleep. So it’s challenging to say just go to bed at 8:30 or 9 o’clock to get more sleep because their body is not physiologically able to fall asleep that early. On the flip side, they’re being asked to wake up and go to sleep and learn, and, in many cases, get behind the wheel of a car and drive at a time when their brain is basically physiologically at its peak of sleepiness. So it’s not of any help to our students to have them have early school start times.

Your work also found that cellphones, computers, and tablets play a role in students’ sleep patterns no matter where they attend school. Can you explain that?

When you have technology in the bedroom, students obtain less sleep. The presence of technology in the bedroom on average equates to 30 minutes less sleep per night, and over the course of the school week that’s 2.5 hours of lost sleep. So that’s why we keep recommending over and over having technology-free bedrooms with central charging stations for the entire family. If parents don’t model the behavior, students won’t follow the behavior. So having everyone at a certain time of night plug the phones, tablets, computers, video games, all the electronic devices in the kitchen in a central charging station, so the bedrooms become technology-free.

But that might be more difficult now that so many families have gotten away from having land-line phones.

You can switch phones to night mode. So if somebody really needs to receive phone calls, turn everything else off. Turn the texting off. Turn the Wi-Fi off so that it remains just a phone. Get a flip phone. That’s what I have, a dumb phone, so it just serves the purpose of being a phone as opposed to all these other things. The problem with technology is one, it’s very engaging. It’s hard to turn it off. So for students, it’s a lot of social media and texting, all of those types of engaging activities that keeps them up at night. The second reason is that technology emits light, and light exposure suppresses melatonin. So if you have a lot of bright light, your brain doesn’t make the melatonin that you need to sleep. Really dimming the screens and getting them off within a certain time before bed can help facilitate an easier sleep onset and increased sleep duration.

What can parents do to help teens who have to be at school very early in the morning?

  • Prioritize activities. Students these days are overburdened with activities. They have to volunteer. They have to work. They have to do athletics. They have to do the school play. And then on top of it, they have three hours of homework. Our students can’t do it all. By trying to do it all, they are sacrificing sleep, and ultimately what happens [is that] they’re not performing as well at school. They’re not performing as well in athletics. Their mood is depressed. They’re not at their best.
  • Having a set bedtime. Studies have shown that students who have parent-set bedtimes, sleep more and function better.
  • Don’t shift weekend bedtimes by more than one to two hours, and [the] same thing with wake times. If they sleep until 12 or 1 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, they are not going to be tired at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. They haven’t been awake enough hours. Maintaining that consistent sleep schedule over the weekend, in particular the wake time, can really help a student maximize their sleep.

Anything you want to add?

We need to change school start times, and in the meantime, it starts in the home. You have to make sleep a priority. Sleep is a pillar of health. It’s as important as eating and breathing. Sacrificing it is only to our society’s detriment.

Photo: A study by National Jewish Health concluded that more than half (55 percent) of teens who were homeschooled got the optimal amount of sleep per week, compared to just 24.5 percent of those who attend public and private schools. (National Jewish Health)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.