Teens and Sleep

Olympic gold medalist and former professional boxing champion George Foreman is credited as saying “I think sleeping was my problem in school. If school had started at four in the afternoon, I’d be a college graduate today.”

It’s likely that Mr. Foreman was thinking about middle school or high school when he hoped for a later start to his school day. Research generated over the last fifteen to twenty years documents the ways that sleeping patterns change over our lifetimes and points out the powerful impact of sleep deprivation on our lives.

We know, for example, that while some of us are early birds and others are night owls, most of us fall somewhere in between. And we also know that lack of sleep or lack of good quality sleep increases the risk of a range of disorders, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and obesity, among others.

We’ve also learned that teenagers’ sleep cycles shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty, typically between 10 and 14 for girls and between 12 and 16 for boys. As a parent of three former teenagers, I can recall the challenges of getting kids up and running for early-morning family commitments:  not my fondest memories of our kids’ growing-up years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an organization of pediatricians and pediatric medical specialists, issued a report back in 2014 in which it recommended a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high school students. (At that time, only 15% of American high schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later.) 

Their rationale cites research indicating that our teens naturally tend to go to sleep and wake up later than their younger sisters and brothers and, often, than the adults in their lives. The AAP’s theory behind their recommendation is that youth who naturally extend their days into the night are helped to avoid sleep deprivation by a later start in the morning.

According to the AAP, an 8:30 a.m. or later start time in middle and high schools will result in increased academic performance, reduced risk of car accidents, and even reduced risk of sports injuries. It’s no surprise to parents of teenagers that sleep deprivation can also impact mood and behavior – absolutely no surprise there!  Importantly, sleep habits of teens have been shown to impact the sleep habits of the adults that they later become, again, with potential long-term health issues.

Citing the benefits of healthy sleep practices in teenagers, many U.S. high schools have changed their start times to encourage the development of healthy sleep practices of their students. In New Hampshire, the Interlakes, Oyster River, and Portsmouth school districts have pushed their high school start times to 8:15 or 8:20 this year.

School leaders in Pittsfield are considering a shift in our start times to allow for a later start for middle and high school students. What do you think of this concept?  What were your own experiences in getting up for school as a teen, and what were your experiences as a parent of a teen?

You are invited to share your experiences and share in the decision-making process about the school start time at PMHS. Send your stories to sau51super@metrocast.net, and your input will be considered in making a recommendation to our School Board.

(No change in start time being considered for PES right now; our young children tend to be early birds at that point in their lives. Recent visits with my grandchildren affirm this hard truth!)