Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute.
Our teens are tired. While sluggish starts, missed alarms or pleas to sleep in on weekend mornings have long been associated with “lazy” teenagers, adequate sleep is an integral part of their healthy development. Nearly 8 in 10 Indiana high school students sleep less than the recommended eight hours on school nights. The consequences of adolescent sleep deprivation are well-documented and wide ranging. Parents can take steps to ensure their teens get the sleep they need, and many school districts are helping by adjusting school start times.
High school students, along with a growing number of middle school students, are experiencing increases in schoolwork and school activities just as natural changes alter their sleep needs.
“There's a clear biological change that happens during and after puberty that leads teenagers to want to fall asleep later and sleep later in the morning, said Dr. Sarah Honaker, a pediatric sleep specialist at Riley Hospital for Children. “This pubertal circadian delay happens in most mammals.” The change in their internal body clocks makes it difficult for many teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or midnight. Decreased sleep associated with rising early and later bedtimes can lead to dangerous consequences. The American Academy of Pediatrics states potential risks of adolescent chronic sleep loss include depressed mood, behavior and learning problems, poor impulse control, and academic performance deficits. Research also links insufficient teen sleep with increased risk of fall-asleep car crashes, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and an increased risk of self-harm, including suicidal thoughts and attempts.
In an effort to reduce teen sleep deprivation, the AAP in 2014 recommended that middle and high schools delay the start of school to 8:30 a.m. or later. Research shows delayed start times produce benefits such as more school-night sleep, decreased tardiness and absenteeism, improved academic performance and better performance on computerized tasks. Research from the Brookings Institute connects later school start times with increased benefits for students from lower-income families, making this shift another tool to help close achievement gaps.
Of course, shifting school start times is a complex task with many potential obstacles. Commonly reported concerns include reduced time for students’ afterschool activities or part-time jobs, childcare challenges, potential safety issues, and adjustments in family schedules. Many districts opt to “flip” elementary schedules with middle and/or high schools, adding concerns about effects on sleep patterns of younger children along with basic logistical concerns such as bus schedules.
Several Indiana school districts have shifted to later start times, with more districts making the move this fall. School start times in our state vary greatly, ranging from 7:15 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. during the 2016-2017 school year. Zionsville School Corporation will be completing a “flip” this summer. Superintendent Dr. Scott Robison reports that the year-long transition included significant research, planning, communication and community engagement.
“Logistically, we certainly had to look at the kinds of opportunities and activities we present for students after school,” Robison said. “We didn't want to infringe upon those and make them go later into the evening. That really precipitated deep discussion about what this would mean, and obviously months of more discussion and public input.”
As parents, many of us set and enforced structured bedtime routines for our young children. It’s equally important to play an active role in a teen’s sleep routines and talk to our kids about the importance of sleep. We also should set child limits on caffeine, reduce or eliminate late-night “screen time,” encourage regular exercise and incorporate at least 30 minutes of downtime before bed. Dr. Honaker says letting teens sleep-in on the weekends can be helpful, but cautions against varying weekday and weekend sleep patterns by more than two hours. Above all, experts suggest that as parents we lead by example, modeling positive sleep routines.
The evidence is clear that our teens are not getting enough sleep and the consequences of chronic sleep deprivation are real and far-reaching. Teenagers are still children who are developing and growing and need eight hours of sleep per night. With today’s hectic schedules, finding more sleep time seems like a tall order. Yet parents, guardians, schools and health care providers must join forces to ensure that our kids get the restorative sleep time they need to recharge and flourish.