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Teens, sleep and school

Sue Cleveland

Sue Cleveland

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Don’t think Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland has missed the recent research and reports that high school students would perform better with more sleep and that their classes should start later in the morning.

Evidence strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents. An estimated 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

Cleveland’s own two sons verified what the research indicates, and she admits she’d like to see the first bell ring a bit later.

“I saw it in James (her Cleveland High son who graduated in 2012): He couldn’t go to bed early and he was wired and perky at 10 p.m,” she said.

But Cleveland is also aware there are some practical realities — a limited transportation system, among them — that would make later start times difficult in Rio Rancho.

“Sleep for Science” research on teens, sleep patterns and the circadian timing system highlighted reasons why teens are challenged by early school starts. Others have studied the issue, and many school districts in the U.S. and as far away as Israel, have begun to explore the possibility of moving the school bell later.

Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance, according to the American Academy for Pediatrics (AAP).

But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. — and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.

AAP recommends that middle schools and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later.

The lead author of the AAP study, Judith Owens, who is also the director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said, “Probably the ideal start time should be 9 o’clock.”

Doing so aligns schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today,” Owens said. “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life.”

A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights. The reasons for teens’ lack of sleep are complex, and include homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology that can keep them up late on week nights.

The AAP advises health care professionals to educate parents, educators, athletic coaches and other stakeholders about the biological and environmental factors that contribute to insufficient sleep.

The public school district in Seattle is studying the costs and logistical issues inherent with a later start time, as most of Seattle’s secondary schools begin before 8 a.m.

Cleveland said it’s just not practical to do that in Rio Rancho secondary schools, as much as she believes the volumes of research and would like to do it.

One of the biggest hurdles is the district’s three-tier transportation system, which, she says, “drives the whole conversation.”

Due to the limited number of buses, the transportation department employs a three-tier system to transport a large percentage of the district’s 17,000-plus students to elementary, middle and high schools spread throughout the city.

“That early start time causes so many problems,” Cleveland said. “If you swapped it, elementary students would be (waiting for their buses) in the dark.

Another big concern is child care: It’s nice to have the older kids there earlier (at home before younger children head home from school).”

“The first two periods of the day are problematic,” Cleveland said. “(Students) are tired and it’s hard to pay attention.

“It’d be nice to start at 8:15 and 9, as opposed to that 7:30 start — and do two tiers,” she said.

To attain AAP’s goal, the district would have to spend more on buses and less money in the classrooms.

The AAP urges middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. In most cases, that would mean a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later, though schools should also consider average commuting times and other local factors.

“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” Owens said. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start-time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”