February 20, 2018
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The Big Sleep

Anyone who ever has parented a teen, or who can remember when he or she was a teen, knows that looming alarm clocks and admonitions are not enough to counter biology. Teens typically are wide awake at 11 p.m., and lid-locked at 7 a.m. So why do high school buses pull up to the house at 6:45 a.m., and why do classes start at 7:45 a.m.?

An. Aug. 23 Los Angeles Times story reports that as many as 80 percent of kids, grades 6-12, are not getting enough sleep during the school year. The story cited research by the National Sleep Foundation.

Not getting enough sleep has serious consequences for both teen learning and teen health. Studies suggest that sleep-deprived teens are more likely to struggle with depression, more likely to get in car crashes, more likely to gain weight and — to the point as the school year begins — more likely to fail in school.

A study undertaken in Minneapolis and the nearby suburb of Edina — each with very different socioeconomic makeups — revealed dramatic results when morning start times were shifted from 7:15 and 7:25 to 8:40 and 8:30.

“Students were noticeably more alert in the first two periods of the day,” the LA Times reported. “The cafeteria was calmer. There were fewer fights in the halls. Students, who were now getting nearly an hour more sleep each night, said they felt less depressed. They were raising their hands instead of falling asleep at their desks. Even parents thought their kids were easier to live with.”

Grades on quizzes and homework improved, tardiness rates dropped and graduation rates improved.

Studies in other states reported similar findings. Delaying start times even by just 30 minutes resulted in demonstrable better results.

As puberty approaches, preteens undergo a change in the time their bodies release melatonin, the hormone that signals bedtime, pushing it back by as long as two hours. So preteens and teens rarely are able to fall asleep before 11 p.m. But teenagers, sleep experts say, need on average about 9.25 hours of shut-eye.

To compensate, middle and high school students turn to caffeine-laced beverages such as soda and energy drinks, which have health consequences.

The reasons high schools start classes earlier than elementary schools in Maine are practical, and will not easily be dismissed. Parents don’t want their 7-year-old children waiting for a bus along the highway in the shadowy December dawn; a teen is more savvy about safety in that context. And high school sports require enough daylight hours, at least in the fall, after school, and enough time to travel to games.

But this information — that teens do not flourish in early classes — has been around for at least a decade. Interestingly, the LA Times reported, not a single district that changed its start time has returned to the earlier hour. It’s time for schools to act on it, or at least begin to think and talk about how to address this fact.

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