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Education Matters: Is Your Kid a Zombie?

Published on: February 25, 2014

sleepwalking teen zombieWhat if I told you that there is one single action proven to boost student achievement and improve attendance — a fix scientists universally agree is guaranteed to improve the health and mood of kids?

It’s not the new Common Core State Standards or a groundbreaking anti-bullying curriculum.

It has to do with sleep. Specifically, an adjustment in school start times to match the varying circadian rhythms of kids, so they can get the sleep they need.

A nationwide movement to shift traditional school start times would allow elementary school students, who naturally wake up early, to go to school earlier. Adolescents, whose natural body rhythms make it difficult to fall asleep until later at night, would get an extra 30 minutes or more of morning sleep.

In January, a study published by the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics confirmed that just an extra half hour of sleep per night could make all the difference for adolescents.

This, and a growing body of scientific research on the subject, debunks the myth that teens are lazy.

Mary Carskadon, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I., has been studying adolescent sleep for 30 years. Among her findings: Teens require as much sleep as younger children, but they may be physically incapable of falling asleep early because melatonin secretions in their maturing bodies naturally occur later at night.

The National Sleep Foundation has a wealth of resources on sleep and its impact on adults and kids of all ages. Each year, to coincide with National Sleep Awareness Week in March, the foundation releases results from “Sleep in America,” its annual sleep-related poll. One of the most striking findings in 2006 was the link between sleep deprivation and adolescent depression.

The impact of sleep

Since 1996, Kyla Wahlstrom, Ph.D., and her research team at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement have been tracking teen sleep patterns and the impact of later school start times. The team collected data from two Minneapolis-area school districts after they adjusted their high school start times by more than an hour.

Among the findings: a reduction in school dropout rates, less student depression and greater academic achievement. After the change, parents — even those who had initially been concerned that the change would negatively impact bus schedules, sports and child care for younger siblings — were reported to be overwhelmingly supportive of later school start times. 

Barriers and advocacy

Scientific evidence and happy parents might suggest that changing school start times should be a no-brainer for school districts. But there is a very real domino effect to making any type of change.

Tweaking times even a little can impact transportation costs and logistics, such as younger kids waiting for school buses in the dark; sports, jobs and other after-school activities; and the cost and availability of child care. Significant community outreach is often needed to overcome resistance to change.

“We need a sea change in the way we view kids and the need for adequate sleep. It is a public health issue, just as important as heating schools or removing asbestos,” says Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D., executive director and cofounder of Start School Later, a nonprofit coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, parents, educators and students.

Homegrown efforts

In May 2012, the Washington State PTA adopted a resolution encouraging school start times that meet “the optimum health requirements for sleep needs.”

In recent years, two area schools, Mercer Island High School and Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, quietly moved to slightly later start times.

Parent Advocates for a Later Start (PALS), a group operating in the Northshore School District, is lobbying Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington state legislators to support its cause.

And an advocacy effort is under way in Seattle, spearheaded by parent and high school biology teacher Cynthia Jatul. 

“As the parent of a middle schooler, I’ve seen the anxiety my daughter feels because she can’t fall asleep at night. And as a high school biology teacher, I see the difference between the students in my first period class and those I teach later in the day,” Jatul says.

As Seattle Public Schools grapples with reducing transportation costs and moving to a uniform three-tier bus schedule, Jatul and other advocates suggest placing elementary schools in the first tier of arrivals (8 a.m.), high schools in the second tier (8:40 a.m.) and middle schools in the last tier (9:15 a.m.).

Based on the results of a survey she and her partners conducted last year, she says the majority of the 700 parents surveyed support these changes.

“The elementary school parents were fine with an 8 a.m. start time, though they said any earlier than that would be too early,” Jatul said.

Despite significant outreach to Seattle Public Schools, Jatul has been frustrated by the lack of serious consideration for her proposal, though there are signs that the Seattle school board may take up the matter at a spring retreat.

Sleep and student achievement

Perhaps the greatest indicator of potential change was an August 2013 tweet from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

“Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.” 

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