Why Every Country Needs Later Secondary School Start Times

Why every country needs later secondary school start times

The teenager in bed, complaining about having to get up, is almost a universal problem.  But it is not their problem- it’s ours. School start times are simply too early.  Secondary schools for students from about 12 years old should start be hours later- perhaps as late as 11 a.m.in the late teenage years.  The reasons for this are biological changes during puberty that change their wake / sleep patterns.
Slide81-300x225The 24 hour cycle of light and darkness determine our wake and sleep patterns.  This is one aspect of our daily (or ‘circadian’ rhythms). Every 24 hours levels of some hormones, our core body temperature, and even our capacity to learn vary according to this body clock. Professor Russell Foster at Oxford has been a leading figure in the science community in communicating the dangers of ignoring our body clock’s natural patterns. Meeting and talking with Russell transformed my understanding of teenagers- and led to changing our school start time to 10 a.m.

Why should the body clock be a problem for teenagers and young adults?It’s because circadian rhythms change with age. A radical shift occurs with the onset of puberty, pushing wake sleep times later in teenagers and young adults. It is only later in life that we return to the earlier wake times we had at 10.

This sudden change occurs in other mammals- so the reason they prefer getting up later is biological, not cultural.

These changes cause a two hour delay in waking and sleeping, compared to younger children or older adults (like teachers). This is a huge time shift within a 24 hour cycle.  If we force teenagers and young adults to get up when we do, it impacts negatively on their learning.  Such early starts cause these young people to lose sleep every school day.

Sleep deprivation is the consequence.  Humans cannot adjust their body clocks, or  train themselves to overcome these natural biological patterns.  New technologies in neuroscience have confirmed the educational consequences of  sleep deprivation.  Here the images show how little learning occurs for sleep deprived subjects.

There have been calls to alter school start times in many countries. In 2009 US Congresswoman Zoe Logfren submitted concurrent resolution 176 “expressing the sense of the Congress that secondary schools should begin the school day no earlier than 9:00 in the morning”.  More recently a Hamilton Project report (2011) recommended changing the start of the school day for schools as one of three ways of improving achievement.

The issue goes beyond learning: mental health and physical health are put at risk by early start times for schools and universities.  Indeed, the negative impact on young people can lead to consequences listed here.  The list reads like a stereotypical description of teenagers.  The difference is that it probably is our fault as adults that they suffer these consequences.  By changing our early start times that suit us to start times that suit their body clocks we will make their lives better.  This could lead to an improvement in their lives- and perhaps improvement the relationships with teenagers and young adults.

Schools can change their school starting times. Having explored the science of the body clock, helped by Russell Foster and other experts, Monkseaton changed the start of the school day to 10 a.m. This took years, with trials, surveys of parents (who were in favour of the new time) and even experiments for BBC Horizon programme The Secret Life of your Body Clock.   The positive outcomes at the school after the first year starting at 10 a.m. are not the proof late starts are better (though they were +20% on high stakes testing).  The biological science had already demonstrated the need to change – and these results are only a reassuring case study showing late starts are perfectly achievable.

*Many of the slides in this post come from Russell Foster’s presentations on circadian rhythms.…

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Harvard University’s Introduction To Sleep And The Dangers Of Ignoring Sleep.

Sleep is important for all of us, so Harvard University created a site devoted entirely to an Introduction to Sleep. Their aim is spelt out in the web address: www.understandingsleep.org .

It is well worth going on the site- it compresses information to a few minutes at most.  It lets you hear and see some of the world’s leading researchers give you an overview of an important topic- and they have to do it quickly.  Many of the videos are about a minute long.

The issues of sleep are all encapsulated in the overview, aptly named Why Sleep Matters (6:13) .  The fundamental point of the film is that we are ignoring the need to sleep.  Our modern society and pressures of work are not only stressful, they stop us sleeping properly.

Some of the site makes sombre reading.  Don’t miss Sleep and Health- a mere 36 seconds long, and a powerful reminder of the dangers to your health of not managing your sleep. Dr Orfeu Buxton reminds us how animals and humans share dependency on sleep as a vital part of life.  The last few words are a bit frightening.  What he doesn’t tell you is that it takes 3 weeks to kill a mouse by starvation.  And 3 weeks to kill a mouse by sleep deprivation.

The management of sleep by our bodies is interesting too.  The sleep clocks and how they work together is a one minute explanation.  The two mechanisms have different impacts on our alertness.  Here is normal sleep:

And here the consequences of staying up too long (or getting up too early).  The impact of this- the cause of sleep deprivation- is dangerous.  In fact, it is life threatening in more ways than one.

The site doesn’t hold back when there are clear health threats.

Your local hospital for instance- how long are the shifts trainee doctors have?  Certainly, in the US, too many hours.  And one consequence is:

“According to the Institutes of Medicine, over one million injuries and between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year result from preventable medical errors, and many of these may be the result of insufficient sleep”

So how important is sleep in these errors?

Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce the number of medical errors by as much as 36 percent by limiting an individual doctor’s work shifts to 16 hours”

Can we please have this limit in Europe / everywhere?

The consequences of sleep deprivation seep into our lives (and deaths) in many ways. One section of the site goes through a list of illnesses ending with lower life expectancy.  There are other dangers we can avoid, like driving cars when we’re drunk – or, what is just as bad- when we’re drowsy:

“The Institute of Medicine estimates—based on recent high quality naturalistic and epidemiologic studies—that drowsy driving is responsible for fully 20 percent of all motor vehicle crashes. That would mean that drowsy driving causes approximately 1 million crashes, 500,000 injuries, and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S.”

Taking care of sleep in our lives is the solution.   Sleep researchers are discovering how sleep is vital for learning and memory, and how lack of sleep impacts our health, safety, and longevity.

For adolescents we need to change the timing for schools and universities to fit in with their sleep patterns.  Our cognitive function is better when our sleep is better (see the four factors film).  Like the Brookings report on the importance of changing school times, on the Harvard website they let a  student have his say. Like Matt, Alicia Kiattinat, 19 (at the University of Texas) and other campaigners in the field are having real success : http://t.co/rHpmUXKkMm .

It is time to help adolescents get the sleep they need.  It is time for all of us to pay more attention to the hidden third of our lives.…

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