As human and wellbeing science continues to mature, it forces us to ask questions about schooling that are a little bit uncomfortable. One such question is: “Given what we now know about delayed circadian sleep rhythms in adolescents, why do secondary schools still start lessons so early in the morning?
The underlying biochemical processes that drive an altered, later sleep cycle in teenagers have been well established. Whilst different people have different chronotypes which affect our propensity to want to sleep at certain times, the average adolescent doesn’t begin to feel the effects of sleep-inducing hormones until about 10:45pm. Even, if they fall asleep by 11:00pm, many teenagers require 9-10 hours of sleep, which means they shouldn’t be waking until 8 or 9:00am. It would seem ideal then, that school should begin at 10am to facilitate sleep, health and performance.
This is exactly what a recent UK study found. A shift in start time from an 8:30am to 10:00am not only saw grades significantly improve, but rates of absence due to illness halved. It’s hard to imagine what long-term impact these two outcomes might have across a population.
Many other studies have shown similar outcomes. Whilst it is likely that changing technology and social media are contributing to the widespread sleep deprivation we see in senior schoolers, part of the problem is within our control.
So why don’t schools respond to the research and begin lessons later? Because it’s inconvenient. Think of everything that needs to be changed: bus times, sport training, meetings, lunch times, etc…not to mention the impact on parents…it’s a hassle.
Those are all real concerns. And maybe they justify a maintenance of the status quo. Or maybe we need to think more creatively about this problem.