Schools in the UK and abroad are currently investigating the possibility that a later start to the day will actually benefit their students. But are we simply pandering to the lazy teenager? Adam Hindmarsh looks at evidence suggesting teenagers’ biological rhythms might provide clues as to why many schools are now opting for a later start to the school day.
Sixty-six percent of teenagers complain of being tired during the day as reported by their parents, this could be because of having to get up early and biologically being unable to go to sleep earlier, also 15% of teenagers fall asleep during the day from lack of sleep.
Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center explains that teenager’s bodies aren’t designed to sleep before 11 p.m., but they are still being made to get up around 6 or 7 a.m. meaning they are not getting the right 9 hours sleep that they should be getting, instead they are getting around 6 hours or less. Surveys into 8th, 10th, and 12th grade found that they get 7 hours or less sleep per night on week days due to having to get up early, not only does this effect the education of the children but can also put them in danger as having to get up early makes them more drowsy when driving leading to more car accidents.
Neuroscientist Russell Foster conducted memory tests on students at Brasenose College, Oxford, he found that pupils performed substantially better in the afternoon than they did in the morning. This suggests that actually their bodies work differently to an adults and actually they are biologically programmed to get up later in the day, therefore schools should open later on in the day because they need to sleep later enabling them to have the correct amount of sleep. Dr Paul Kelley, headteacher at Monksheaton High School in the UK (who has already implemented a later start) said “evidence had shown rousing teenagers from their beds early resulted in abrupt mood swings, increased irritability, depression, weight gain and reduced immunity to disease.”, furthermore he claimed that we are the ones who are making teenagers how they are by disrupting their sleeping pattern, so to change how they are in society, we need to change how we make them get up too early, it would be like making an adult wake up at 4 a.m. every day. The peak for teenagers mental function is in the middle of the afternoon, Russell Foster said that making the start times later for the students would benefit them because they have higher cognitive function later on in the day.
Another option to starting later on in the day could be still starting early in the morning, but then just doing more simple things in the morning and more academically difficult things in the afternoon as teenagers have higher cognitive function in the afternoon. Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota found that a teenager’s body has a late to bed, late to get up cycle, this is because melatonin, the chemical released in the brain to make you sleepy is released later on in the day, after 11 p.m. then is stopped being released later on, so at 7 a.m. they are still sleepy and the body is wanting to sleep.
All of this research and points towards the same conclusion, that the teenage body clock has slightly altered since the beginning of puberty, so this also points to the idea that schools need to open later and begin lessons later on because it means that the teenagers have higher cognitive function later in the day compared to adults because of their cycle being slightly out.