As more students do their best to overachieve and prepare for a competitive future, many find it difficult to accomplish their many tasks in a regular day and stay up late into the night. The result is students forgo getting enough sleep.
“Most school age students need 8-10 hours of sleep,” said Dr. Daniel Cobb of the Sleep Disorders Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “One of the big signs of not getting enough sleep is someone who has to catch up on sleep on weekends and holidays.”
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for later start times in school to help combat student fatigue and balance the many activities students complete each day.
“Delaying school start times is one of the most effective interventions to reduce the negative consequences of chronic sleep loss,” said Judith Owens, lead author of the academy’s policy statement and director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, calling the situation “a national public health crisis.”
The later start is urged for middle and high schools so kids can get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of shuteye they need to grow and learn, the academy said. But only about 15 percent of U.S. high schools have an opening bell that rings at 8:30 a.m. or later, according to federal data.
Cobb explained social changes have forced students to hit the hay later than in previous years.
“I think it’s mostly a social setting,” he said. “Students go to school until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, then after-school activities, social activities, and then they stay up late doing homework.”
Many students don’t even have the luxury of an 8:30 a.m. start time. Students who ride a bus awaken earlier as buses begin their routes at 7:30 a.m. And some high school sports teams have practices as early as 6 a.m.
Changes in internal circadian clocks coinciding with the onset of puberty also contribute to lack of sleep. Children find it difficult to hit the hay as early as when they were younger, Owens said.
“So the 10-year-old who went to bed at 9 p.m. becomes the 13-year-old who can’t get to sleep until 11,” Owens said.
This biological shift occurs at precisely the time the brain and body are developing at a rapid clip, and school commitments become more intense, making it “the perfect storm,” she said.
Cobb added the work a student does when he or she is tired is not going to be his or her best.
“Memory, concentration and mood are all better when someone gets enough sleep,” he said. “It’s hard for students to take accelerated classes and do multiple extracurricular activities at the same time.”
Just a little more sleep also can reduce car accidents among teen drivers, Owens added.
“This can be fixed with a relatively simple and straightforward intervention.”
Changing school start times is not as easy as it sounds, said administrators, citing an array of logistical problems, from bus schedules to parents’ commutes.
Later starts mean later dismissals. That, in turn, wreaks havoc with the very same extracurricular activities that contribute to a student’s success. Practices and sports would end later, and the same homework students now start at 9:30 p.m. doesn’t get started until 10:30 p.m. or later.
Cobb agrees schools may benefit by having slightly later start times but noted “they certainly shouldn’t start any earlier.”
He mentioned lack of sleep has different mental and physical effects on each student, and some can become ill from the deprivation.
“Younger kids who don’t get enough sleep can have hyperactivity,” he said. “We see a lot of kids who suffer from headaches and stomach pains when they don’t get enough sleep.”
Instead of a much later start, however, Cobb feels parents, educators and students should be knowledgeable about the benefits and importance of sleep and do their best to create a balance.
“I think everything needs to be done in moderation,” he said. “I think people get caught up in trying to overachieve in multiple areas.”
Scheduling a snooze and setting up the ideal sleep environment are key to restful sleep. When combined with a daily routine, the body becomes accustomed to doing things at specific times each day, including sleeping and waking.
“A regular bedtime schedule and a regular bedtime routine help,” Cobb said. “Routine is especially helpful for younger students. Try to eliminate activities from the bedroom, like TV, video games and computer late at night that hinder their ability to go to sleep quicker.”