Could postponing the school day improve teenagers' wellbeing?

Sleep has become something of a hot topic recently, with the likes of Arianna Huffington telling us we need to sort out our bedtime routines if we want to improve our wellbeing and increase our energy levels. But ask any parent of a teenager and they’ll tell you a similar story about their teen’s exhaustion.

It’s not just the temptation of staying up all night Snapchatting their friends that’s leaving our teenagers drained though. One sleep expert says that adolescents effectively lose up to two hours of sleep per day due to the way that the school day is structured.

Asking a teenager to get up at 7am to start school by 9am is akin to asking a 55-year-old to get up at 5am. This means that some young people are experiencing sleep deprivation, which can lead to reduced concentration, productivity and performance, and increased irritability, mood fluctuations and anxiety.

Dr Paul Kelley says that postponing the time that school starts could lead to a huge improvement in young people’s wellbeing. In his 2014 study, ‘let teens sleep, start school later’, it says: “For the educator, student development is defined by age and the daily timetable by social conventions that vary between countries, regions and even individual schools. In contrast, biological time is measured in developmental changes in the body, and over the day by our internal biological clock. It is no surprise given the relative novelty of mechanical clocks in evolutionary timescales that our ability to function optimally, including in learning, varies with biological time rather than conventional social times.”

The study concludes that the “obvious way” to address the problem of chronic sleep deprivation in teenagers is to synchronise education start times with adolescent biology. Data in the research found that at the age of 10, children tend to wake up naturally at about 6.30am, so Kelley and his colleagues suggest school for that age group should start between 8.30am and 9.00am. However, by the age of 16, biological wake time is much later, at about 8.00am – they therefore suggest shifting education start times to 10.00am, and for 18-year-olds (who have a biological wake time of 9.00am), school should start at 11.00am at the earliest.

The paper highlights a 2002 study in the Minneapolis Public School District found that shifting school start times from 7.15am to 8.40am led to students having higher attendance and achievement, and improved behaviour and mood.

Another study that Kelley and his fellow researchers mention is a study of the United States Air Force Academy, where researchers looked at the academic performance of first-year students (aged 18 and 19) during a three year period when start times changed each year between 7.00am and 7.50am. They found that when students had later start times they performed better in the course overall.

“Over the last 30 years, the effects [of postponing school start times] are only positive,” Kelley says. “Parents and students are in favour of change.”

However, the issue – and possibly the reason that such a change hasn’t been introduced by most schools – lies with school administrators. Kelley says that they “don’t like to make changes like this”.

Some of Kelley’s University of Oxford colleagues are currently undertaking a project called Teensleep, the largest ever study looking at adolescent sleep. Working with state secondary schools in England and Wales, they want to deliver a sleep education programme to year 10 students this year, monitoring some students’ sleep patterns just before and during this programme. They hope to discover whether a sleep education programme can help to increase the amount of sleep teenagers are getting and improve the quality of the sleep – and whether this has an impact on physical and psychological wellbeing.

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