For teens to do better in school, they need to sleep in

Something didn’t sit well with Lisa L. Lewis when she began dropping off her eldest son for high school in her California district in 2015. 

“Every day I was driving there, I could tell he was there, but he was hardly alert and in optimal shape to be going off for a full day of learning,” says Lewis, a journalist, mother, and now advocate. 

Concerned for his well-being, attention span, and overall happiness, Lewis asked fellow parents how they felt about the school’s start time and was met with shrugged shoulders and the response that it had simply always been that way. She soon learned that such early start times were not unique to her own community and decided to investigate why.  

Many school start times were originally put in place because of bus schedules, and it became a “default” to put teens in the earlier slot, she says. 

“They were not put in place initially based on student well-being,” says Lewis, underscoring the lack of a basic understanding of teen development. 

Teenagers are chronically sleep deprived: Only 22% are getting eight hours of sleep a night, and the recommended amount is between eight and ten. Sleep deprivation has long-lasting ramifications, and can impact the ability to complete school. A 2017 study examined 30,000 high schoolers from 29 schools, finding that graduation rates went up from 77% to 88% when school times were pushed later. 

“This actually matters in terms of student performance,” Lewis says. 

Lewis penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in 2016, “Why school should start later in the day,” which received wide attention including from her local senator who made this a legislative priority. Through advocacy and research efforts, Lewis helped her senator introduce a bill aimed at widely instituting later start times in February of 2017. The California bill for healthy school start times was implemented this July, making California the first state to push public high school start times to 8:30 a.m. and middle schools to no earlier than 8 a.m. This change impacts about 3 million middle and high school students, Lewis notes. Her efforts are detailed in a new book, The Sleep-Deprived Teen.

How does a later start time make a difference? 

Teens’ circadian rhythm—or their body’s natural alarm clock dictating when it’s time to go to bed—is naturally shifted later, making it harder for teens to fall asleep. Teens may not feel sleepy until 11 p.m. or later because their melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone, doesn’t get released until later in the evening compared with younger school-aged children. 

This is compounded by the pressures of high school, to partake in extracurricular activities or to work part-time jobs, which already make going to sleep at a reasonable hour difficult, if not impossible. Puberty further makes falling sleeping early difficult for teenagers, and Lewis notes that menstrual cycles can disturb sleep. And if teens are not living in a safe environment, serious disruptions can make it harder to get to sleep at night. Students of color and LGBTQ+ students are at an increased risk for sleep deprivation, which can worsen mental health outcomes and perpetuate the cycle, creating further educational disparities.

This is precisely why, as Lewis outlines, the focus is not as much about pushing teens to turn off the lights earlier, but rather not interrupting their sleep in the early hours of the morning. These hours usually constitute REM or deep sleep, which is vital to brain development and feeling fully rested.

What is the recommended start time? 

In 2014, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) authored guidance of an 8:30 a.m. start time across the board in a major statement, which prompted other organizations to follow suit. 

“A substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement,” says the AAP in a statement. The report outlined that 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools commenced before 8:30 a.m. 

In 2015, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that only 18% of schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later, with an average secondary school start time of 8:03 a.m.

While recent guidance has outlined the importance of getting between seven and nine hours of sleep for U.S. adults, teens have a set of unique circumstances that warrant a separate discussion.

The mental health impact 

The teen brain is in the midst of developing during high school, and therefore disruptions to sleep can alter brain development and overall function. Sleep deprivation can further intensify negative emotions, anger, and stress largely because the teenage brain is already prone to high emotions as it is developing. 

A 2020 study found that more feelings of anger occurred the day after getting less sleep than usual for college-age students. And as mental health issues soar among teenagers, the cycle continues. A study of 5,000 teenagers found a correlation between sleep deprivation and anxiety and depression symptoms. It also found that sleep deprivation at age 15 increased the likelihood of developing mental health problems down the road.  

Maintaining emotional resilience works hand in hand with feeling well-rested, Lewis found. Teens are also already predisposed to risky behaviors and drowsy driving, which sleep deprivation exacerbates. 

What parents should know 

Parents can advocate for later start times in their communities, especially given the research and evidence behind the effectiveness. It’s crucial to understand the mental health impacts of sleep deprivation on the teen population and the effects of early morning starts on productivity and overall wellness. 

Parents should also monitor how overscheduled their child is, and whether there is even a window for eight hours of sleep at night. 

The states pushing the ball forward 

Following California’s lead, similar start-time bills have been introduced in New York and New Jersey, both declaring a start time of 8:30 a.m. Lewis hopes this becomes more widespread because decade-old bus schedule routes should not be the determining factor for teen mental health outcomes. 

“The vast majority of our high schoolers are sleep deprived or chronically sleep deprived, and that does indeed have really far, far reaching ramifications,” Lewis says.

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