The recent decision by the Boulder Valley School District to move to later start times at the high school level was welcomed by a lot of parents, including two licensed clinical psychologists, whose focus is encouraging healthy sleep habits.
Vyga Kaufmann, PhD and Natalie Whiteford, PhD are the founding partners of Summit Behavioral Sleep Medicine, a clinic in Boulder that treats people with sleep disorders and they couldn’t be more excited when they heard the news.
“BVSD families can be proud that administrators are engaging in science-based policies. This is great,” said Kaufmann.
“My kids are in St. Vrain and I’m jealous [of the later start time],” added Whiteford. “I hope St. Vrain will follow suit.”
Both say the science is clear – traditional bell schedules do not align with the biological needs of our students during their teenage years.
Research: Teenagers need more, later sleep
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “during puberty adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning as a result in shifts biological rhythms.”
“This is a global phenomenon,” Kaufmann said. “This circadian shift happens in nearly all adolescents and nearly all mammals around the world. Even little adolescent monkeys are bothering their parents by staying up later.”
While it is possible for students to get to school by 7:30 a.m., sleep experts say the timing is not conducive to learning. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. so they can get the sleep the need.
“A lot of times the comparison you hear is asking your kid to wake up at like 6 or 7 a.m. is like asking an adult to wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. While that is not catastrophic, I don’t think any of us feel our best when we wake up a couple hours before we are supposed to,” noted Kaufmann.
In order to wake up, many students are using stimulates like Red Bull or vaping, bringing health concerns of their own.
Learning from school districts that have gone before
A number of public schools in Colorado, including Cherry Creek Schools and Thompson School District have already moved to later school start times, while others are considering the change. Research has been conducted at a number of school districts, outside of Colorado, during their transitions and according to a report recently released from the Seattle Public Schools, the students and community have seen a significant benefit.
“The research shows that when start times go later, students do get more sleep. When kids hit their teenage years their circadian rhythms naturally shift, so even if they are turning off their devices and getting to bed a little earlier, it is not necessarily their body’s prime time for sleep and they might have a hard time falling to sleep. When their bodies are actually ready to sleep are those morning hours,” said Whiteford.
“Kids are reporting that they feel better,” added Kaufmann “They say they are better able to concentrate and are not as tired during the day.”
Often Whiteford and Kaufmann hear concerns from parents that later sleep equates to laziness and will impact students’ preparation for life after school.
“We live in an adult world, with adult hours. We are being asked to change our experience to adolescent experience. We don’t necessarily like that because we had to deal with it and lived in that world when we were growing up – so it is a little hard to think about that shift. It feels a bit indulgent in a way, right?,” said Kaufmann.
They suggest looking at the situation from another angle. Providing the rest students’ brains need for proper development will better set them up for success in the work world, which takes place after college, in which most students have the flexibility to adapt their schedule to fit their lifestyle and biological needs.
“Don’t think of it as sleep, maybe think of it as their nightly brain bath,” said Kaufmann. “Eventually, most people will shift back during their adult years, when it’s easier for them to get up and not be operating on a chronically sleep-deprived basis.
How much sleep should teenagers be getting?
Teenagers should be getting between eight and 10 hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. They have made the following recommendations regarding sleep ranges, by age group:
- Preschoolers (3-5 years old): 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13 years old): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17 years old): 8-10 hours
“Based on epidemiological data, it is known that nearly half of kids are only getting seven or fewer hours of sleep on school nights. Parents might sometimes think that they are compensating for it on the weekends, but there are still a host of other problems when it comes to sleeping in on Saturdays or Sundays and then trying to go to bed early on Sunday night for an early Monday morning,” said Kaufmann.
Of course there are many factors to students getting a proper amount of sleep. According to the CDC poor sleep habits are often associated with several health risks, including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, using drugs and poor academic performance.
Additionally, there has been a lot of focus recently on the blue light emitted by smartphones and computers.
“We call them glowing rectangles – anything that glows is emitting some blue light and blue light suppresses melatonin production. Melatonin influences the timing of sleep,” Kaufmann said. “Natalie and I have both gotten a lot of questions about students using computers for homework. It is a real concern that needs some shift in terms of timing in which homework is done or at least limiting exposure to the blue light later at night.”
Later start times = healthy, happier kids
Changing school start times, is just one aspect – but does help set our students up for success, rather than failure, the experts say.
“Kids are getting up to 30 or more minutes per night. That is significant. It is meaningful, especially when you think about it in terms of a cumulative effect. Getting a half hour more of sleep every night, weeks on end – parents are going to see a shift in their kids’ mood. They will see it,” Kaufmann said. Whiteford added, “Yes, they will be learning better in school. Yes, they will be retaining more information. Yes, they will be better prepared for college. They will also be better behaved and less irritable at home and more likely to report feeling better overall.”