Wake-up call: why secondary school should start later in the day

Not only do teens hate early school times but their learning suffers from such hours, which can cause poor concentration, impaired mood, altered appetite and weight gain

“When children move into adolescence, their body clock changes. They naturally become more of a night owl, and so they find it harder to fall asleep and get up in the morning.” Photograph: Thinkstock

“When children move into adolescence, their body clock changes. They naturally become more of a night owl, and so they find it harder to fall asleep and get up in the morning.” Photograph: Thinkstock

 

School started at 9am, and I was late almost every day. As a teenager I was in constant conflict with my parents over my refusal to go to sleep on time and I ended up being dragged out of bed in the mornings.

Because I did all my homework, paid attention in class and got good grades, most of my teachers were willing to overlook my lateness and the fact that I was not paying attention for that first morning class.

One snarky teacher who gave me red notes for lateness always told me that “in real life” I would have to be in work by 9am. I think I became a journalist – where the hours are flexible – partially to spite him.

Another teacher didn’t care that I slept through his class, which he always seemed to deliver with impressive indifference.

I wasn’t the only one who struggled to stay alert in the mornings; none of my classmates were engaged for the first class or two.

And today, we know that teenagers hate mornings. So why do we insist on imposing our adult world on them?

“There is an epidemic of sleep deprivation among teens,” says Dr Elaine Purcell, a consultant in sleep-disorders medicine at the Mater Private and Blackrock Clinic.

“Between school, homework, extracurricular activities and, increasingly, social media and technology, second-level students have so much competing for their sleep time than ever before.

“Parents don’t seem to realise that adolescents need at least nine hours of sleep per night, but many are only getting seven. This is leading to poor concentration, impaired mood, altered appetite and weight gain. It’s leading to attention problems, some of which are misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Sleep theft

A growing body of evidence suggests that the policy decisions of adults are robbing children of the sleep they need. Last year, the American Academy of Paediatrics said that schools should start later so that adolescents can get the required hours of sleep.

Then, a few months ago, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said that school should not start before 8.30am.

More recent research, presented by Dr Paul Kelley of the University of Oxford at the British Science Festival in Bradford, went even further: Kelley and colleagues say that secondary school shouldn’t start before 10am, and college shouldn’t start until 11am. Kelley and colleagues, who are leading a study into teens and sleep, say that the body clocks of most people aged 10-55 are not suited to rising early.

The Teensleep experiment, which starts in the UK next year, will see students randomly assigned to one of four control groups, one of which will start school at 10am, a second given education about sleep, a third given both a later start and a sleep education, and no change for the fourth group.

“Why can’t children just go to bed earlier and when they’re told?” parents might ask. “When children move into adolescence, their body clock changes,” says Purcell.

“They naturally become more of a night owl, and so they find it harder to fall asleep and harder to get up in the morning.

“The problem is actually compounded by the weekend lie-in, as it disrupts their sleep pattern. They should go to bed and get up at the same time, even at weekends.”

Is a later school start time really the answer? And won’t this just mean that homework and extracurricular activities will take place later in the day?

“In the US, where some schools moved out the start time, cynics suggested that young people would go to bed later and sleep later,” Purcell says. “But one study showed that they did actually get more sleep, and performed better academically."

Electronic stimulants

Lucy Wolfe is a paediatric sleep consultant based in Cork. “Studies are certainly showing that teenagers would be more open to learning and retaining information if school commenced at a later time,” she says.

“We also have an over-reliance on electronic media, and using phones and tablets close to sleep time stimulates the waking part of the brain. This not only makes it harder to go to sleep but can also cut short the amount of deep sleep experienced, which may, in turn, reduce their alertness and concentration levels during the day.”

But do parents really want to have that battle with their teens, wrestling phones and iPads from their hands?

“Kids are not self-regulated enough to turn off,” says Wolfe. “Parents do need to intervene and provide clear guidelines about electronics in the bedroom. I would suggest that all families decide on a time to switch off, and stick to it.”

Buckley agrees, and says the guidance needs to go even further.

“All screens emit blue light, which inhibits the melatonin production that we need to help us fall asleep.

“They should be turned off two hours before bed. If they’re reading a book, it should be a paper book rather than an ebook. It’s a huge deal for the Department of Education to change school start times, but less difficult for parents to bring about changes in the home.”

Teens will, understandably, hope that their parents ignore her advice, but Buckley is seeing a growing number of young people who are falling asleep in school and, as a result, falling behind academically.

Both Buckley and Wolfe say that parents and teachers frequently tell her that lack of sleep pays a huge part in classroom behaviour and misbehaviour, directly impacting on learning outcomes. “This is a very widespread problem,” says Buckley. “We are facing in to a huge problem with regard to our sleep. Children and teens are particularly vulnerable.”

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