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OpEd: It’s time we woke up to teens’ sleep patterns

A teen's natural inclination is to stay up late and sleep in the next day. Why are we forcing them to do otherwise?
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Karen Green, December 6, 2013 1:29:54 PM

Want our teens to do better in school? Let them sleep in.

That’s the message that sleep experts, education advocates and even many parents are sending to high schools across the US, both informally and through a national petition started by a group called Start School Later.

About 40% of secondary schools in the US begin by 8:00 a.m., and that’s just too early for teens, who need about 9 hours sleep a night to be able to function optimally at school and who typically stay up well past midnight most nights.

If you’ve ever tried to wake a sleeping teen at 6:30 a.m., you know that it is a gargantuan, frustrating effort. But it’s not laziness that’s keeping your teen from waking up, just as getting them to go to sleep is not as simple as trying to enforce an earlier bedtime. Yes, a regular schedule and bedtime routine will help, but the teen brain is under the influence of raging hormones, an underdeveloped frontal lobe, and may very well be hardwired to stay up late, thanks to a circadian rhythm that differs from adults or young children. Forcing a teen to get up so early simply leaves many of them sleep deprived, affecting both their performance and behaviour at school, as well their emotional and physical health.

But while pushing school start times past 8 am is the goal for the US group, it’s not nearly late enough for Canadian schools, where average start times are between 8:15 and 9:00 a.m.

The push for later start times in Canada has been gaining traction since 2009, when Toronto’s Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute moved to a more radical 10 a.m. start. The results four years in, are promising. Absenteeism in the school is down, marks are up and teachers and guidance counsellors say they can see the difference. According to Guidance and Student Service Head Heather Gillete, the “humane” start to the day means that students are “in a better frame of mind” when they get to school, laying the foundation for a more productive day.

Offering a later start does have its detractors, among them those who say that after-school programs and jobs may be affected by a school day that ends later. But sports and club practices could be accommodated in the hours before school, and a 4 p.m. end time has an added bonus for working parents – it gives teens nearly two hours less time to be home alone, unsupervised.

Trying to force teens to work optimally in the morning is an effort in futility – it’s not about attitude or responsibility, it’s about biology and chemistry. And if the goal is for our children to do better in school, to enjoy a healthier sense of well-being and success in secondary school and beyond – well in this case, it’s not always the early bird that catches the worm.

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