Many of us find it difficult to stay awake and alert during our first period classes. When we are caught sleeping in class, we are often chided for having “bad time management skills” and going to bed late. However, recent scientific studies have shown that teenagers are wired to have later sleep cycles than other age groups; it’s in our biology. In order to accommodate for this natural behaviour and optimize student performance and quality of life, it is imperative that schools delay start times.

Studies by researchers at Oxford University have determined that hormonal changes caused by puberty require that adolescents receive at least 9 h of sleep, and later rise and bedtimes. These hormones promote “eveningness,” making teenagers feel more awake later on into the day, and less awake earlier in the morning [1]. Therefore, it is not possible for teenagers to simply sleep earlier to wake up earlier; our brains are still promoting activity in the evening. The best quality of sleep for an adolescent occurs between 11 pm and 8 am; in fact, forcing a student to wake up at 7 am is equivalent to asking a 50-year-old to rise at 5:30 am. And the side effects of this sleep deprivation are significant [2].

Sleep is not a luxury for few, but a biological requirement for all—it enhances our productivity, creativity, mood, and relationships. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to heightened levels of obesity, diabetes, depression, and hypertension [3]. Experts recommend that adolescents receive 9 h 15 min of sleep, but the global average for students is a mere 7 h. Although this may be partially attributed to students staring at screens and technology long after dark, research suggests that we effectively lose up to 2 h of sleep everyday as a direct result of early school start times [4]. This lack of sleep seriously impacts student performance and comprehension at school.

Why, then, aren’t schools responding?

Primarily, parents worry that their children’s after-school extracurricular activities will be impacted. In addition, many cannot afford child care to accommodate for their work schedules [5]. While these are valid concerns, workarounds do exist. Extracurricular activities and sports could start and end later in the day to better complement adolescent sleep patterns—being better rested, kids would be able to bring greater energy to their involvements. Elementary and middle schools could also set up child care services to help coordinate parents’ pick-up and drop-off schedules. It is undeniable that communities will have to adapt and make strong commitments in order to accommodate delayed school starts, but their efforts will pay off.

In the United States, the Minneapolis Public School District pushed back start times from 7:15 am to 8:40 am, and found that students slept an hour longer than those in similar districts. They benefited from improved attendance, mood, behaviour, and academic performance—the later the start time, the better the results. More significantly, some schools reported that with delayed start times at school, the frequency of teenage car crashes went down by 70 percent. Although parents were initially resistant to the idea, after just one year, the delay was met with a 92 percent approval rating [6].

Clearly, delayed start times allow youth better quality sleep, consequently increasing alertness and minimizing distractedness. Later start times even appear to be the most cost-effective method to improve health in adolescents, particularly for financially disadvantaged students who are statistically less likely to receive enough sleep. More specifically, the impact of later start times was greater than that achieved with more expensive interventions, such as reduced class sizes [1]. Delayed start times may be difficult to achieve logistically, but they prove to be economical in the long run.

The objective of school is to help children maximize their potential, improve student performance, and remove barriers to success. Naturally, adolescent biology must be factored into decisions which concern the education system. Communities should prioritize student sleep, health, and achievement over stability and societal norms. Sleep is important, especially for growing adolescents. It is time we wake up and face this truth.

Illustration: Sheri Kim


More information on the importance of sleep can be found at Health Ambition