Back in early February, the school board unanimously moved forward with a request to create an implementation plan for a later start for high school and junior high students. As Board President Alan Fernandes stated in his motion, “We believe the positive benefits of adequate sleep align with, and are central to, our mission which focuses on the well-being of our students and goals of creating optimal conditions for learning.”
In his motion, he stated, “’School Start Times for Adolescents’ is a policy statement published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.” According to this article, Mr. Fernandes continued, “the research clearly demonstrates that sleep deprivation is linked to increased rates of obesity and depression among youth.”
The article goes on to argue that a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later is an easy fix that will mitigate problems caused by sleep deprivation among American adolescents and is an important step schools can do to improve the health and well-being of children.”
The motion was largely based on an August 2014 release from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which “recommends middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”
However, Professor Ian Campbell and Dr. Irwin Feinberg, in an article that will be published this weekend in the local paper, believe that the APP’s policy statement “is useful in emphasizing the deleterious effects of insufficient sleep. We believe that insufficient sleep is harmful at any age but particularly so in children and adolescents,” but at the same time they believe that the statement “overstates the extent of adolescent sleep deficiency.”
They argue, instead, that “its recommended sleep durations are not based on experimental data. Moreover, the AAP statement does not consider less intrusive remedies for increasing sleep durations.”
Sleep deprivation, according to these studies, has reached epidemic proportion, as a “National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.”
The report cites a number of reasons for teens’ lack of sleep, including “homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology that can keep them up late on week nights.”
While these are important factors and the AAP recommends pediatricians work with parents and teens about healthy sleep habits, they primarily argue that “the evidence strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents.”
The report estimates that 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.
“Napping, extending sleep on weekends, and caffeine consumption can temporarily counteract sleepiness, but they do not restore optimal alertness and are not a substitute for regular, sufficient sleep,” according to the AAP.
“The AAP urges middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. In most cases, this will mean a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later, though schools should also consider average commuting times and other local factors,” the report continues.
“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” Dr. Judith Owens, MD, said. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”
However, Professor Campbell and Dr. Feinberg argue, “The AAP overstates adolescent sleep loss by accepting the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation that children between the ages of 10 and 17 need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night. There is no rigorous scientific evidence that supports this recommendation.”
They argue, “It is implausible that the amount of sleep that is biologically needed does not change between age 10 and 17 years.”
They present their own study, arguing, “Our longitudinal data also demonstrate that sleep duration decreases by 10 minutes per year between ages 9 and 18. The decrease was not composed of both reduced NREM [non-rapid eye movement] and REM sleep, as would be expected if it were caused by truncated time in bed. Instead, the reduction in sleep time across adolescence was entirely composed of reduced NREM sleep.
“This is further evidence (along with the massive reduction in deep sleep) that the need for sleep recuperation declines across adolescence. We and others believe that the decline in recuperative need results from a brain maturational process that streamlines circuits by eliminating excess connections (‘synaptic pruning’).”
They are careful not to deny that “some adolescents are sleep-deprived.” However, “We firmly reject the proposition that 87 percent of U.S. high school students are sleep-deprived.”
They argue, “Our ongoing study is attempting to obtain rigorous evidence on the relation of sleep duration to daytime performance and how this relation changes across adolescence. The results of this study will contribute to evidence-based recommendations for adolescent sleep durations.
“It is possible that our data will show that 8.5 to 9.5 hours is an appropriate recommendation. However, there are at present no dose-response data that justify this recommendation, and the notion that sleep need does not change across adolescence flies in the face of common observation.”
However, other research disagrees.
In the February 2011 edition of Psychology Today, Dr. John Cline argues that later school start times alone really help high school students.
“So, do later school times really help high school students?” Dr. Cline asks. “Based on accumulating evidence, the answer is unequivocally yes. Increasing numbers of studies conducted in various parts of the country show that a change in the start time of the school day can make a significant positive change in the lives of students.”
Dr. Cline notes that “many high school students live in what Dr. Mary Carskadon calls a continuous state of jet lag” and the key research suggests that “starting school later could help students get more sleep. Starting classes later, closer to when their biological clocks are most ready for learning, could make a real difference in how much knowledge a teen acquires at school.”
In the end, Professor Campbell and Dr. Feinberg write that there “is simply insufficient evidence to support the view that later school start times would be more helpful than other interventions.”
They conclude, “By raising this important topic for discussion, the Davis Board of Education has taken an important step that demonstrates to the Davis community the importance it attaches to adequate sleep for learning and adolescent health.”
They recommend “less drastic changes in school schedules combined with educational programs that provide guidelines for adequate sleep durations (adjusted for age) might improve outcomes without the disadvantages of requiring an 8:30 a.m. start time for all students.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting