Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 11, 2014

Teens need a good night’s rest

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — The large halogen light on the alarm clock begins its gradual increase, simulating daylight-bright, and minutes later the automated birds start chirping in my daughter’s room at 5:25 a.m. She steps onto the bus at 6:26 a.m. She is sitting in class at 7:05 a.m. And, if we are all being honest here, she is probably head-bobbing by 8:03 a.m.

It is a grueling schedule.

We are all getting an education in the importance of sleep deprivation in teens. Dozens of school districts across the country have conducted surveys and studies to determine what school bell schedule is best for putting alert, rested and academically prepared students in their seats for first block or first period.

This movement has developed because health care providers, mental health experts, sleep researchers and school officials have begun to realize that moodiness or sleepiness in teens is not just a result of hormones or the natural need for individuation. “Their internal clocks are accurately telling them to stay up later and sleep later,” writes Dr. Esther Entin, a Board Certified pediatrician and clinical associate professor of family medicine at Brown University’s Warren Alpert School of Medicine. “But middle schools and high schools tend to start quite early and often teens have to awaken between 5-6 a.m. to get to school on time. Lack of sleep has been shown to contribute to depression, inattention, poor behavior and academic failure.”

Even more disturbing is additional research about what happens to some teens functioning without enough sleep. For example, a literature review conducted by members of the Florida State University Department of Psychology, reported that “a growing body of research indicates that sleep disturbances are associated with suicidal ideation and behaviors.”

Many of the school districts have decided that, despite the complication of after-school sports, afternoon jobs and finding childcare for the younger students, it is best to start high school students later rather than at the earliest time slot.

Most parents remember when our teenagers were toddlers and elementary age children and they popped out of bed long before we were ready. Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health confirms those memories, “Until the age of 10, most children awaken refreshed and energetic. In adolescence, the brain’s biological clock, or circadian rhythm, shifts forward.” It is a chemical reaction, as Cornelius, N.C.,  psychologist, Carole Armstrong, Psy.D., PLLC, explains, “Any discussion of the teenage brain needs to include the fact that melatonin is released later in the evening, and therefore remains present in their brains longer in the morning, making it harder for them to engage cognitively in the early hours of the morning.”

Teen brains are developing and wiring at a different pace and with different avenues — the frontal lobe is far from finished. Their natural body clock wants to stay up later and wake up later. When discussing school start times one psychologist said to me, “Anything before nine o’clock, I consider obscene.”

According to a website article on the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, Fayette County, Ky., changed the bell schedule due to attendance issues. The school superintendent said, “We’re seeing our attendance is up and our tardiness is down, so we have more kids coming to school every day and more kids coming to school on time.” But even more impressive? “The kids are more alert,” he added. “They’re ready to learn.”

One of the principals who wasn’t a fan of the 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. change, apparently told his boss, “I hate to admit it, but it’s better.”

According to the National Sleep Foundation, a study by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota underscores the “encouraging” results of a later start: “After the Minneapolis Public School District changed the starting times of seven high schools from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. ... Dr. Wahlstrom found that students benefited by obtaining five or more extra hours of sleep per week. She also found improvement in attendance and enrollment rates, increased daytime alertness and decreased student-reported depression.”

Another study found that teens who feel “sleepy” during the day are three times more likely to be depressed than their alert classmates who get enough sleep. The study’s lead author, Mahmood Siddique, D.O., a sleep medicine specialist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in New Brunswick, N.J., says, “Instead of giving them medications, I’d rather give them a chance to sleep better, and more.” Studies have also shown that a period of intensive “synaptic pruning” occurs in the adolescent brain during sleep, necessary for developing their strongest cognitive abilities. So, some of a student’s best brain work may be done while he or she is asleep. Granted, it isn’t an easy decision to shift bus routes, rearrange thousands of elementary, middle and high school students, and coordinate it for working parents, working teens, team sports and other extracurricular activities such as theater and band — but teens need a chance to let their bodies rest and their brains develop. A later start may help them finish stronger in the end.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at