Let’s show teens we value sleep

This year, my school district pushed back the high school start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. in response to community pressure and research showing positive results from later starts — such as fewer tardies/truancies, higher grades, fewer car accidents and better mental health.

The underlying goal, of course, was to get teenage students to sleep more. It’s more sleep, not the specific school start time, that produces the positive results.

So are the students sleeping more? Do they need to? And if they’re not (yet), what will change that?

I don’t have statistically valid results on our student body. For that kind of data, you’ll need to look to studies like this 3-year study of 9000 students or this study from Seattle or this study from Rhode Island.

But I do have a small sample of data from my Hybrid AP Psych students, who do an independent inquiry into their own sleep habits every January. This inquiry starts with all of the students keeping a sleep diary for 10 days, starting the first Thursday in January.

For the past two years, the average night’s sleep for students in Hybrid AP Psychology (in January) was consistently 7 hours, and the average bedtime was 11:22 p.m.

This year, they averaged 7 hours and 24 minutes, and they went to bed at 11:28 p.m.

Bearing in mind my small sample size, I’m encouraged. Most of my students didn’t use the extra hour to stay up a lot later, even though this time period was right before finals. They stayed up 6 minutes later, and they slept about 30 minutes later. That’s good news.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Experts recommend more than 9 hours of sleep for teens, and my psych students are still well short of 8 hours. While they are not a representative sample, I don’t think they are unusual.

It could be that 9 hours, while healthy, is just unrealistic for busy American teenagers. I know I only slept about 7-½ hours a night in high school in the ’80s (10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.), and though I was constantly exhausted and sick (I had strep four times senior year), I didn’t want to change it.

My own sons didn’t do any better. I doubt they got even 7 hours of sleep a night in high school, and they were always catatonic on the way to school. They both got a lot more sleep in college and now that they have jobs.

The reality is that many of our teenagers have too much on their plates. They want to take difficult classes (and get As), play sports, join clubs, volunteer and get jobs. And we have a hard time saying no to them.

There’s also a lot of negative peer pressure around sleep in high school, especially among high achievers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students say things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” — even while they were working on this project.

It’s a point of pride to be “too busy to sleep” or to be up past 2 a.m. doing homework (and commiserating on social media).

I asked my students to share their insights on this. Why don’t they prioritize sleep, and what can we (adults) do to help?

One, who said he is sleeping less but partly due to sleep disorders, wrote to me: Kids feel like they need to take these hard classes to stand out from the rest and to gain a higher chance of approval. That’s only from a school standpoint, students have other conflicts other than school related. Some might be dealing with mental disorders like depression which can significantly affect one’s sleep or a family conflict like parents getting a divorce! There are so many factors for sleep deprivation that just focusing on one thing won’t stop the problem.

Another, who said she sleeps a lot more this year, said it’s not really about school. She wrote: High school students nowadays tend to be involved in much more than just school: sports, after-school activities,volunteering, work, etc. This causes us to stay up later than we probably should.

Another said it would help if parents and teachers talked more about sleep, But she admitted: Honestly the biggest factor for me is optimization. The only way I would sleep more if it would be more beneficial for getting into college in the long run.

There are no easy answers here, but we need to listen to what our teenagers are saying. We need to talk with them more about the importance of sleep, and we need to step in when they are taking on too much.

Like I said, I didn’t do a perfect job of this as a parent, but we did say no when we saw our kids overloading themselves. When one son decided to seriously pursue basketball, we didn’t let him take on some other activities, like Youth in Government and the University’s advanced math program. He wasn’t happy about it, but we weren’t willing to let him burn himself out at 15.

Our teenagers need more sleep, that’s clear. We’ve taken a good first step with later start times, but we need to do more — and that takes all of us.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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