Issues Tank: From Late Summer Nights to Early School Mornings
It can be difficult for anyone to make the transition from the lazy mornings of summer to the busy schedules of a new school year. But as Dr. Shelby Harris, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, notes, the adjustment for teens can be especially daunting.
Harris says an uptick in technology use and energy drink consumption are among the obstacles teens face when making the transition to a school sleep schedule. But the real challenge, Harris says, doesn't come packaged in a can. In fact, it's an obstacle teens have no control over.
It's called a circadian rhythm and, essentially, it controls the body's sleep pattern. According to research, a person's rhythm naturally adjusts in the teenage years and make going to bed later not an act of rebellion or procrastination—as it has often been characterized—but instead a natural, biological tendency teens face.
"When you're a child, your circadian rhythm starts to have you go to bed at maybe eight o'clock at night," Harris said. "Then when you start to become a teenager, your circadian rhythm starts to shift, meaning you melatonin starts coming out later; your natural wake time starts to happen later. So it shifts later and later and then for most teens, the natural bedtime is about 1 a.m."
Because teens are going to bed later, the natural tendency becomes to sleep in later. While that may work in the heat of mid-July, schools' early start times often get in the way of students getting the amount of sleep they need. Harris says the suggested nine to ten hours of sleep for teens is nearly impossible to get during the school year because of early wake up times. Adults, she explains, need less sleep: between six and nine hours.
As research builds on the affects circadian rhythms have on teenagers, schools are beginning to consider the benefits of delaying first period. According to studies, allowing teenagers more time to sleep during the academic year has lead to increased graduation rates, better attendance records and more focus in the classroom.
One such school is Glens Falls High School in upstate New York. The high school will delay the start of first period from 7:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. when it begins classes on Tuesday. Paul Jenkins, superintendent of Glens Falls City School district, says he hopes the benefits will outweigh the concerns.
"I think most students are of the opinion that, 'Hey, you know, I get to sleep in a little later.' It's not really going to make a major change in their day—other than our hope [which] is that they will get more sleep and they will be more attentive and more alert," Jenkins said recently in a phone interview.
Because the high school does not rely on a bus schedule, Jenkins expects the transition to move smoothly. But when it comes to whether he believes other schools should adopt a similar delay, Jenkins recognizes that every school has its own set of challenges to consider.
"I think it's definitely going to depend on their situation, but I think there are going to be benefits and that they should at least investigate whether or not their district would be able to move to a later start time," Jenkins said.
Dr. Pamela Thacher, an associate professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University, is in the midst of a three-year study with Dr. Serge Onyper, an assistant professor at St. Lawrence. The two are studying roughly one hundred students from the high school through online surveys and interviews to see if the delayed start time actually benefits students.
"Our prediction is that students will get more sleep," Thacher said in a phone interview. "A lot of people who are involved in the study at the school say, 'Well, we just really think that what's going to happen is if they can sleep in later, they'll just stay up later and so they won't get any extra sleep.' And I really don't think that's going to happen. That has not happened in any other study of students getting later start times. In fact, what they do is sleep significantly longer."
Thacher says she understands that because of natural differences in circadian rhythms, mornings for teenagers can be very different when put next to mornings for adults.
"I just feel tremendous compassion for students who have to be at school at 7:30 in the morning," Thacher said. "Less so for the teachers because I think adults are far more capable of functioning at 7:30 in the morning. But for schools that start at 7:45 like Glens Falls [used to]—is it worth it? I mean, I guess we'll find out."
According to New York City's Department of Education, it's hard to say whether schools should begin later in New York City because individual principals decide the start times of schools in the City based on students' needs. For instance, some schools in New York City begin as late as noon, says the Department of Education.
The bottom line: Dr. Harris of Montefiore is in support of giving teens some extra time to sleep, hopefully making that sleep transition a little easier.
"I do think that it would be a greater value to have teenagers start later and have the younger kids start earlier because they're up earlier anyways," Harris said. "Teens will learn more, they'll be more efficient in school and it will help them in the long term, anyway. So I think there's a lot of benefit to doing it."
Harris notes some consequences among teens that don't get enough sleep include: increased rates of car accidents, decreased focus, limited attention and concentration, heightened mood issues and skewed judgment.
Tips on how to bridge the gap from summer to school, according to Dr. Harris:
- A few days leading up to the start of school, go to bed 10 minutes earlier each night and wake up 10 minutes earlier each morning until you get to your targeted wake-up time.
- Stay consistent with a steady, 7-day sleep-wake schedule. Don't try to catch up on the weekends.
- Develop a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Drop the summer sweets and maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
- Limit electronics and homework at least one hour before bedtime.