According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), while adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, children aged 11 to 17 years require 8 to 10 hours. Young adults have a circadian rhythm (their internal time clock) that requires more sleep than adults, but they are also going through physiological changes that often makes sleeping prior to 11 pm difficult. Add to this distractions, such as computers, phones, texting, etc. — and the fact that staying up late is also fun.
Despite this knowledge, school administrations across the country require middle and high school classes to start as early as 7 am. This leaves many adolescents sleep-deprived, sleepy while driving to school and drowsy in early morning classes (and often throughout the day).
While starting the school day later would likely benefit adolescent health, this seemingly simple act is fraught with complications. Later start times mean later dismissal, later starts to after-school jobs, delayed sports practices, and more complicated busing schedules, not to mention the impact on parents regarding childcare, carpools, as well as getting to work on time.
Still, the benefits of having teens start the school day later are very compelling. Researchers at the University of Minnesota changed the start of the school day from 7:15 am to 8:40 am for students at seven high schools. Students not only got 5 or more hours of sleep each week, but were also less likely to become depressed. Additionally, there was a drop in the number of students who were late or absent, grades improved, and the risk of car crashes due to falling asleep was reduced. Researchers also saw a reduction in the risk of metabolic and nutritional deficits tied to lack of sleep, such as obesity.
The NSF now strongly recommends that more parents and educators advocate for Sleep Friendly Schools. Visit their Web site for more information, sleepfoundation.org