Sleep Disorders Section

The Fairfield Board of Education voted to join Wilton in making their high school start time later !!!

School Daze: A Wake Up Call

Think your teen is lazy? Maybe not. After puberty, teens' daily waking and sleep cycles or circadian rhythms shift into a delayed phase. Indicators of the circadian rhythms such as temperature, hormone secretion and melatonin levels all start and end later in the day than when they had prior to puberty. Therefore, teens' body clocks make them go to sleep later and wake later than younger children. However, school start times are not in alignment with this shifted body clock. In addition, teenagers require more sleep than younger children, typically about 9.25 to 9.5 hours nightly.

Since high school students typically start school between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., they are driving to school and attending classes when their body says they should still be asleep. In addition, they typically are required to take standardized testing (e.g. CAPT and SAT) in the early morning, which is their worst time for performance. Students who are tired also have an increased likelihood of using stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

For years, teachers have reported that students in the first and second periods of the day are typically weary and bleary-eyed. Excessive sleepiness is associated with reduced short-term memory and learning ability, negative moods, inconsistent performance, poor productivity and loss of some forms of behavioral control. Daily waking and sleep cycles influence cognitive skills, social functioning and emotional health. High school students on the roads in the early morning hours are also a safety issue. Each year, 1500 people in the United States die from sleep-related auto accidents. Drivers under the age of 25 cause more than half of the fall-asleep crashes.

To accommodate teen sleep needs, school districts around the country are changing high school start times to later in the morning. The most studied school district is the Minneapolis Public Schools, which has experienced improved grades, a decrease in student depression, improved behavior, better attendance and increased continuous enrollment. To achieve this and avoid a financial impact, school districts have flip-flopped high school start times and elementary school start times. The Minneapolis experience shows that this actually works well for working parents. They now require only afternoon and not morning and afternoon day care for younger children. Police statistics indicate that teen crime most often occurs between school dismissal and the time parents arrive home from work. The later dismissal time for teens minimizes that time period. Also, since sleep patterns for young children are not delayed, they typically perform better in the early morning, which is now when they are in school.

Sports and extracurricular activities have been a perceived barrier to later start times. Some districts have restructured class schedules to have physical education classes at the end of the day to accommodate the need for sports teams to leave school early. Others have not changed their schedules, noting that students currently are often dismissed early for sports activities. Still others add that although school is currently dismissed usually around 2:00 to 2:30 p.m., many sports activities don't begin until 4:00 p.m. and after.

Some question whether teens will actually go to bed later since they will be able to sleep longer in the morning. While some students may do just that, the research shows that switching to later school start times did not alter bed times.

According to James B. Maas, MD of Cornell University, a leading expert on the topic, "sleep, in essence, is food for the brain." Sleep deficit is hampering high school achievement. Tiredness should not be confused with laziness. All teens should have the right to learn in an optimum environment. Rather than the "early to bed . . ." adage, the new adage should be, "Wake up later and your grades will be greater."

The Connecticut Thoracic Society is spearheading a campaign to educate the public and educators about the fact that the National Institutes of Health have identified teens as a population at high risk for problem sleepiness. To learn more about this problem, please call 1-800-LUNG USA.