Sleep – The Teenager’s Superpower

Does letting teenagers start school later help them do better at school and be healthier and safer?

California has recently introduced legislation requiring High Schools to start no earlier than 08:30am, and a recent study has suggested that delaying school start times in the US could contribute $83bn to the economy over a decade.

This is on the back of international research that suggests letting teenagers start school later brings learning, health and safety benefits.

Parents often discuss the frustration of trying to get their teenagers up for school.

Phone alarms that wake up everyone in the house but the child who set the alarm; increasing volume of verbal exchanges between parent and child, and the messy bedroom that is left after the speedy but often late departure are commonly cited as features of a teenager’s morning routine.

The evidence about the importance of sleep to cognitive function, mood and physical health is well established with more attention being paid to how to ensure that sleep is prioritized. Colleagues in our US practice recently wrote about the impact of sleep on productivity and creativity; and how organizations can create an environment that puts sleep first.

However, the specific implication for adolescents increasingly considered an important public policy issue in itself. This was most notably evidenced last year in California when the Governor signed a law that required public schools to start no earlier than 08:30am.

This change followed a number of international studies in the US, UK, Europe and Singapore that have shown that delaying school starts did increase sleep time countering the belief that teenagers would simply stay up later. Associated to this, studies have found benefits to learning, health and safety. These included;

  • Improved academic attainment
  • Reductions in poor behavior and illness related absence
  • Fewer reported symptoms of depression
  • Reduction in Body Mass Index
  • Less reliance on caffeine and other harmful substances
  • Reductions in Traffic Accidents

Whilst the evidence around improved academic attainment, reductions in illness related absence and traffic accidents is the strongest, the evidence base around this is still developing.

However, it is considered strong enough to influence a developing consensus amongst health professionals, educators and legislators that starting school later brings a wide suite of benefits and therefore deserves attention. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both called for school start times to be delayed until at least 08:30am.

These studies and endorsements are supported by strong research that finds that teenagers getting up late is a consequence of biology not laziness.

As children enter adolescence they still need 8–10 hours of sleep but a shift in their internal body clock (circadian rhythms) means they do not feel ready for bed until at least 11pm, even when tired. This is related to the secretion of the hormone (melatonin) that helps us fall asleep. The teenager’s body does not secrete this until late in the evening, and not at all in the morning making it hard for them to wake up.

This biological shift conflicts with societal demands where getting up early is perceived as virtuous and a sign of efficiency, and the daily schedules of our teenagers builds in demands accordingly. Unfortunately, sending your teenager to bed early does not work because they simply cannot get off to sleep which leaves them with a sleep deficit.

This is compounded by the role light plays in regulating melatonin, which means the presence of digital devices in the bedroom which our teenagers increasingly turn to before going to sleep only serves to exacerbate the problem.

Much of the resistance to later school starts are related to the logistics. Issues around the school run, the sequencing of separate curriculums in primary and secondary schools and time available to extracurricular activities. The costs of rescheduling school transport is often cited as being prohibitively expensive.

Whilst these are real and cannot be simply dismissed a recent study by the Rand Corporation provided the final piece of the puzzle when it suggested that moving the school time to 8:30 across the United States would, after taking account of any costs associated with this, contribute $83bn to the US economy over a decade, and $140bn in 15 years. That makes for a strong economic case.

This might appear on the face of it a very tactical issue. However, we are increasingly understanding the relationship between issues that impact on personal wellbeing and safety. This has in turn led to greater inter-disciplinary collaboration in identifying and responding holistically through solutions that deliver multiple outcomes.

The research globally would suggest that later school starts could be a helpful contribution to giving our kids the best start in life.

Even if it was found not to bring all the benefits that the research suggests than at the very least it will make the morning routine for parents of teenagers less stressful…

A version of this article appeared on the Deloitte Middle East website

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Former UK Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Metropolitan Police Service. Now advocating for, and advising on, Public Safety.

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Andrew Morley

Andrew Morley

Former UK Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Metropolitan Police Service. Now advocating for, and advising on, Public Safety.

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