Schools slowly waking up to teens’ sleep needs

Miami-Dade high schools are studying whether to join others across the country in pushing back high school hours to address teen sleep deprivation.

08/03/2014 3:22 PM

08/03/2014 3:23 PM

If there’s one thing teenagers love, it’s the snooze button.

And as early as September, some high schoolers in Miami-Dade public schools could get the chance to use it more often — on school days, not just on weekends. The school district is considering testing later class hours. If adopted, Miami-Dade would join a growing number of schools listening to emerging science that argues it is biology, not laziness, that turns so many teens into morning zombies.

Stephan Chamberlin, 16, who will be a junior at Coral Gables Senior High this fall, gives the idea an A. Like at other Miami-Dade high schools, his day starts at 7:20 a.m., which Chamberlin described as an “ungodly hour of the morning.” He wakes up at 6 a.m. but some of his classmates wake up as early as 5 a.m.

Miami-Dade is only a few months into the process, just starting to consider which, if any, high schools might participate in a pilot program. The challenge is that while the science is straightforward, changing school hours is anything but.

Luis Diaz, who is leading the pilot project for Miami-Dade school operations, likened it to playing dominos — one move creating a cascade of effects .

Not all after-school activities can be pushed later, particularly sports of outdoor activities that might require lighting. Bus routes, which are staggered to accommodate elementary, middle and high schools, would be affected. So would adult education programs, which often start right after school. The change would also affect the schedules of school employees and students’ families.

“If it’s feasible and can work, the school has buy-in and it’s something the community believes in, it’s something we would push for, 100 percent,” Diaz said. “We want to make sure that if the change takes place it won’t have any distracting factors to schools that are operating; that it’ll have a positive impact on the schools that are involved.”

Diaz spearheaded an effort to research potential effects, polling about 100 students as well as staff members from each of the seven district high schools that could be candidates. Based on the results, Diaz, a former high school principal, and other administrators will consider whether to proceed.

Though the logistics are tricky, the science behind the shift is strong.

The central contradiction is that while teens need more sleep, they also tend to go to bed later – and not just because they’re up late on Facebook, according to Alberto Ramos, co-director of the Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Miami Medical School and assistant professor of clinical neurology.

Teens staying up until 4 a.m. aren’t just being rebellious – they may just not feel sleepy until that time, Ramos said. Anywhere from 7 to 16 percent of teens have delayed sleep phase syndrome, meaning their internal clock makes them ready to go to bed only at late hours. At minimum, teens require more than nine hours of sleep – adults need seven – but some require up to 12 hours, Ramos said. The problem can be exacerbated by the use of computers and smartphones before bedtime.

Combine those factors with a high school start time of 7 a.m. and, Ramos said, “we can assume most adolescents are sleep-deprived when they go to school.”

Traditional early school start times could result in inattention in class, and as a result, poor performance, along with irritability and reliance on stimulants like caffeine, according to Ramos. If students drive to school, early starts can even become dangerous.

“There’s evidence that by imposing our schedules upon adolescents we may actually be endangering them to some extent,” Ramos said. “I’ve seen patients in high school and their parents tell me that first and second periods are useless for them. They don’t pay attention at all, they sleep through it – and these are good students.”

Though late starts are by no means the standard, there are schools in 42 states — including Minnesota, North Carolina and, more recently, California — that have already pushed back class hours, citing the negative outcomes of sleep deprivation as their motivation. Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest school system in the country, joins school districts in Maryland and Virginia as the latest to consider shifting the class clock back a bit.

If some high schools in Miami-Dade adopt later starts, it could go into effect as early as the 2014-15 academic year. Proposed start times are still unclear, but across the country schools that have made the change have started anywhere from 8 a.m. to as late as noon, Ramos said.

Diaz said he will present his findings to the assistant superintendent of school operations to determine “which schools, if any, will work with the pilot program.” They will then present that decision to the superintendent and top leadership.

The proposal is still far from definite. Not everyone supports delaying school start times. Critics say the change leaves students less time in the afternoons for extracurricular activities. They argue that students have been going to high school early in the morning for many years.

Still, though delaying start times could have tradeoffs, supporters say having a well-rested student body is more important. A 2011 Brookings Institute report on the matter, estimating the ratio of benefits to costs at 9 to 1, recommended the change.

Until then, Chamberlin, the Coral Gables junior, may have to continue indulging in what he called his “guilty pleasure” — sitting at the back of class and dozing.

“I have fallen asleep in class. I do frequently get distracted because I am sleep deprived, especially after long hours of doing homework. It’s a serious problem,” he said. “I’ve seen kids almost comically drift off to sleep and do the head-nodding thing where they’re kind of half asleep in class.”

Chamberlin described early start times as a waste of both students’ and teachers’ time.

“It’s counterproductive,” he said.

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