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Chester County Press

Sleep expert discusses school start times

11/10/2016 02:15PM ● By J. Chambless

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, responding to a student-supported request, is looking at the issue of sleep schedules among teens, with a goal of possibly delaying the school start times in the district.

As one of the first big public events addressing the issue, the district welcomed expert, Dr. Judith Owens, for a presentation on Nov. 7 at the Patton Middle School Auditorium. The audience was filled with parents, teachers, and school board members from across the county who are also involved in studying the issue.

Ken Batchelor, the asssitant to the district superintendent, said, “This is a district goal this year – to study the start times. Last year, students from across Chester County, under the guidance of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, studied this topic. These students looked at the science behind the national discussion about student start times, and they also developed recommendations. The students have been reporting to different school boards around the county.”

Batchelor emphasized that the district has made no decisions about changing school start times. “But we have made the decision that we need to research it in a thoughtful manner,” he said. “When we hear about the science behind this, it is very compelling. But we want to ground ourselves in the reality of, 'How do we do it?' There's not a group out there that is saying, 'Don't do this,' but we do realize the challenges that occur whenever a district decides that they want to adjust their start times. Come spring, we're going to have a decision and bring it to the school board.”

Owens, who is the director of sleep medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, began by saying, “I'm going to talk about sleep as a health imperative. I think the conversation about school start times has really shifted from being solely focused on the academic implications, to really seeing this as a public health issue.

“Let's talk first about some common misconceptions that I hear as I go around the country, talking about this issue,” Owens said. “There's 'Teens would go to sleep earlier if their parents just made them do it,' 'If school starts later, they'll just stay up later,' and 'Kids need to learn to get up early; that's real life.'

“Sleep is just as essential to good health as adequate nutrition, and healthy amounts of physical activity. And that means getting sleep that is appropriately timed. We know that there's a 'master clock' in the brain which determines our wake and sleep patterns. But the thing we've learned in the last decade or so is that every cell in the body has what we call 'circadian oscilators.' Those 'clocks' need to be synchronized with each other, and with the environment. If they're not, you get profound impairments in physiologic function and health.

“Our bodies are hard wired to be awake during the day, and asleep at night. Violating those underlying biological influences has consequences,” Owens said.

“In younger school-aged children, total sleep time required is 10 to 12 hours. Most school-age children are the first ones up in the morning. This is a time when school, activities, and electronic media start to interfere with sleep times, and parents may be less aware of issuesrelating to their child's sleep.

“As kids go into adolescence, they all experience a normal shift in their circadian rhythms, in association with age and with the onset of puberty. This results in a shift of up to several hours in both the natural fall-asleep and natural wake times. It's almost impossible for the average adolescent to fall asleep much before 11 p.m. on a regular basis,” Owens said. “You can lead a teenager to bed, but you can't make them sleep.”

Owens pointed to homework, social networking, after-school jobs and time spent with screens as contributing to lack of sleep. “We know that these circadian rhythms are delayed even further by exposure to screens in the evening – computers, televisions, even some e-readers,” she said. “This is a big influence that we need to tailor education around. These biological changes are in direct conflict with earlier start times. That means that 8:30 or later is the sweet spot for not only allowing kids to get enough sleep, but also aligning their sleep/wake patterns with their normal biological undepinning.

“Students are required to wake for the day and function during their lowest point of circadian alertness in the 24-hour day,” she said. “It's like asking all of us to wake up at three o'clock in the morning, every single day, leap out of bed and greet the day, and be ready to function at your best. Pretty tough.”

Teens who try to offset sleep deprivation by sleeping in on Saturdays and Sundays don't get any relief, Owens said. “We know that variance in sleep and wake times is associated with learning problems and behavior problems in school-age children. I would suggest that this practice of sleeping in doesn't compensate for sleep loss during the week. It's like a permanent state of jet lag.”

Owens said that 13- to 18-year-olds need eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Younger children need somewhere between nine and 12 hours. “But we all know that is not happening,” she said. “By the time kids are seniors in high school, when they need to be performing at the top of their game, they're getting the least amount of sleep.

“What are some of the effects?” Owens said. “The first cause of death among adolescents in the United States is unintentional injuries – which include car accidents. The third most common is suicide.

“One of the brain areas most affected by sleep loss is the pre-frontal cortex, which controls higher-level brain functions – decision making, problem solving, the ability to observe your behavior and change it according to anticipated consequences. We know that adolescents who are sleep deprived are not only more likely to report depression symptoms, but they're more likely to have suicidal thoughts.”

From a safety standpoint, “Young drivers are the most likely to be involved in drowsy driving crashes,” Owens said. “We also know the impairments are equivalent to, or greater than, those of moderate alcohol intoxication. As parents, we would never allow a teen to get behind the wheel having consumed three or four beers, and yet that happens every day when they drive themselves to school.”

Owens cited some ways to get better sleep, and for parents to make sure teens are getting enough, but she also said schools need to be involved.

“Schools should emphasize sleep as a health priority, and that includes educating all school personnel about the importance of sleep,” she said. “School counselors already know about the impact, because they see these exhausted kids come into their offices. Information about drowsy driving needs to be included in driver's ed, and schools should not have caffeinated beverages in cafeteria vending machines.

“Schools can help students manage their schedules so they have time for adequate sleep,” she said. “That might include looking at the homework burden. We shouldn't counter the effects of having healthy school start times with having things like athletic practices that start at five o'clock in the morning, like some swim practices, for instance.

“Healthy school start times are 8:30 or later for middle and high school students. Since the late 1990s, at least 1,000 high schools, in over 100 district in 43 states, have reported changing their school start times to make them later,” Owens said. “Almost none of those schools have returned to their original bell times. But we still have work to do, because less than one in five middle and high schools in the United States start at the recommended 8:30 or later. In Pennsylvania, more than 60 percent of schools start before 8 a.m.

Owens cited a study that found “Even a 30-minute delay results in significant improvements for students. But I would caution you to think about making small shifts that still get you starting school well before 8:30. You may not see the kind of impact you would like. If you're going to do it, do it right.”

In many studies, she said, after schools institute a later start time, “attendance improves, tardiness rates drop, drop-out rates decline, standardized test scores can improve, and grades improve overall, particularly in the core subjects. We also know that delayed school start times results in improvements in mood, and decreased visits to the health center for fatigue. And, for me, this is most compelling part: The school start time is also correlated with a decrease in car crashes,” Owens said, “because students are not driving to school when they are the least awake.”

The hour-long presentation was followed by half an hour of questions from the audience. The entire presentation is posted on the district's website, There is also a page of information regarding many aspects of sleep needs, and information about how the district is proceeding with the ongoing study of the issue.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].