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Teenagers Might Be Better Off If They Sleep On It

Who knew an extra hour of Zzzs could mean higher grades, happier students and fewer discipline problems? Preliminary evidence from a school where classes were pushed back shows just that.


Aarthi Belani still shudders when she recalls dragging herself out of bed each morning during her junior year of high school two years ago in Edina, Minn. The 17-year-old, who will be a freshman at Stanford University this fall, would set her alarm clock for 6:30 a.m., the latest possible time that would allow her to shower and run off to school in the cold and dark with no time for breakfast and her hair still wet.

School started at 7:20 a.m., a common opening time for high schools in the United States. It felt like the middle of the night to Aarthi and her classmates.

"It was an ungodly hour to be studying chemistry or something," she said. "In first period, 75% of the kids would have their heads down on their desk at one time or another."

Now a growing body of research suggests that Aarthi's fatigue and that of her classmates was the predictable outcome of a school schedule insensitive to teenage biology.

Adolescents in their mid- and late teens, it turns out, have a physiological need for extra sleep compared with younger teens, especially in the morning hours. Yet adolescents typically get less sleep as they mature, in part because most high schools start an hour or so earlier than junior-high schools.

Officials in several Minnesota school districts, concerned by the latest research suggesting that sleep deprivation may be taking a toll on students' academic performance and emotional well-being, are experimenting with bold changes in school starting times. It is an effort to synchronize the school day with adolescents' biological rhythms.

Preliminary evidence from Edina, where Aarthi and her classmates were allowed to start school at 8:30 a.m. last year, suggests the later schedule is paying off with higher grades, fewer discipline problems and a generally happier, more-rested student body.

"Teachers are saying, 'This is a remarkable change. The attention that is being paid in my first-hour class is so vast, I can't get over the difference that one hour of sleep makes,' " said Kyla Wahlstrom, associate director of the Center for Applied Research in Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the logistics of changing school-day timing.

The new findings may be relevant to younger children too.

Research suggests that many behavioral problems in elementary and junior-high school children, including some of the growing number of diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are in part a result of increasing sleep deprivation.

"The main effects of insufficient sleep at these [younger] ages are behavioral and emotional changes," said Ronald E. Dahl, director of the child and adolescent sleep laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "It's important for parents to realize this, because they can be unaware that their kids are not getting sufficient sleep."

Discovery Contradicts Conventional Wisdom

The discovery that adolescents have a biological need to sleep a little later in the morning was a surprise to Mary Carskadon, the Brown University sleep researcher who spearheaded early studies of the phenomenon in the 1980s while she was at Stanford.

"The conventional wisdom was, 'The older you get, the less sleep you need,' " said Carskadon, who directs the E.P. Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory in Providence, R.I.

Her studies of children ages 10 to 17 who were allowed to get as much sleep as they needed defied that wisdom by showing no decline in sleep requirements with age. Given the chance to sleep as much as they wanted, teens slept an average of 9 1/4 hours, leading Carskadon to believe that even if that is unrealistic for many, then they at least ought to get about 8 1/4.

Another series of tests by Carskadon, which measured daytime sleepiness in teens of various ages, found that older adolescents nodded off in the day more easily than their younger counterparts.

"This seemed to say not only do adolescents not need less sleep, but in fact something happens in adolescence that contributes to feeling sleepier in the day," Carskadon said.

At first, she and her colleagues assumed their findings reflected psychological or sociological aspects of adolescence, rather than a biological need for more shut-eye. Teens, after all, have many reasons to stay up late, any number of which could be contributing to daytime sleepiness.

Indeed, adolescence is a time of great psychosocial upheaval, with many new opportunities and responsibilities to face. Teens commonly are driven by a desire to take control of their lives and to gain independence from parents, for example. And what better way to do so than by staying up late, especially since later bedtimes are recognized as emblematic of adulthood.

Adolescents also have a host of new social options, including evening sports events and late-night outings with friends. Homework also increases in the late teen years, and few parents would argue with the student who wants to stay up late studying.

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