Five days a week, I’m tasked with waking my 17-year-old daughter for school. “It’s 7 a.m. sweetie,” I say as gently as possible. As usual, there’s no sign of life. I say it a few more times. Crickets. At this point, I start to worry that she has stopped breathing, which unfortunately means I have shake to her. Slowly, she begins to move—like a bear coming out of hibernation. After a series of grunts and groans, she unleashes a wail that rattles the house to its foundation: “I'M SO TIRED!”
It’s no secret that teenagers are a sleepy bunch. For my kid to get the eight to 10 hours of nightly shut-eye recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society for 13- to 18-year-olds, she’d need to be in bed, and asleep, by 9 p.m. (Her school start time is 8:40 a.m.) That’s a tall order when you factor in homework, extracurriculars, a part-time job and spontaneous FaceTime therapy sessions with friends that totally cannot wait. Most nights, she clocks about 7 hours, which is more sleep than what the majority of teens get. Kids are crawling into bed with their phones, waiting on that one last Snap, and because light from devices interferes with the body’s natural production of melatonin, their sleep is even further delayed. For too many of them, making it through school the next day involves pounding coffee and energy drinks, sleeping during class, or coming in after the bell.
While none of these solutions are ideal, the kids who arrive late might be onto something. Recent research is proving that a later school start time could have a significant positive impact on teen health, wellness and academic outcomes. In June, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released results of a study involving more than 15,000 U.S. students from a school district in Colorado. The study—the largest of its kind to date—confirmed that after delaying start times for middle schoolers by 50 minutes and for high schoolers by 70 minutes, students got more sleep, were more alert in class and performed better academically.
For this study, the middle schoolers were allowed to come in at 8:50 a.m. instead of 8, and the high schoolers began their day at 8:20 a.m. instead of the horrifically early start time of 7:10 a.m.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to support teen health, but currently only 14 percent of U.S. high schools and 19 percent of middle schools heed that advice. And while the majority of high schools in Canada begin at 8:43 a.m. (according to a 2016 McGill University study), former Toronto District School Board trustee Cathy Dandy thinks that’s still too early. “It’s like trying to teach adults at 3 a.m.—their brains are just not awake.”
And she’s got the data to back up her claim.
In 2009, Dandy spearheaded a late start pilot at Toronto’s Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, (ECCI) a grade 9 through 12 school in the city’s east end. The school changed its start time to 10 a.m. and ended classes between 2:30 and 4:15 p.m. depending on the day of the week. Lunch hour was shortened to 45 minutes. Dandy says the results were overwhelmingly positive. “We saw three things: a reduction in late arrivals, a reduction in absences, and an increase in marks,” she says.
Dandy, who now advocates for kids who struggle in the public school system, says that our teens aren't lazy, and it's not that we're failing to get them into bed on time at night. Rather, it's their body clock: Around age 12, melatonin production in the brain is delayed by a whopping 3 hours—shifting from approximately 8 p.m. to about 11 p.m. That melatonin continues to be released until way past sunrise.
“Melatonin release in the brain triggers sleepiness, and this release occurs closer to midnight in teenagers compared with earlier in adults,” explains Frances E. Jenson, author of “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.”
In short, it’s hard for kids to fall asleep on time and to wake up for school because the melatonin in their bodies doesn't kick in until later, and then hasn’t dissipated by the time their alarms go off. The result? Students who are far less alert and therefore less able to learn new material, especially early in the day.
To prove this point, Dandy asked ECCI teachers to compare math marks from grade 10 students in their first-period class with scores from students taking the same math course in third period. “The marks were almost always worse in first period,” she says. Not only did the pilot show an overall improvement in marks of 4-9 percent, but teachers reported teens were more engaged, parents said their kids were easier to live with, and a full 70 percent of students said it was “easier to come to school.”
“Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest health detriments for adolescents today,” says Colleen Davison, a social epidemiologist and population health researcher at Queen’s University who was one of the lead researchers on the ECCI pilot. Davison points to the abundance of research around sleep, and its proven impact on health, learning and brain development. “It’s really obvious that if you have enough sleep, all those things are positive,” she says, “and if you don’t, they’re all negative.”
And while kids can chip away at their sleep debt on the weekends, Davison says this is less than ideal. “You should have more of a uniform pattern where you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. It's best for your circadian rhythm.” She points out that even a half-hour sleep gain can have a huge impact on health and learning. “When we started researching prolonged sleep debt, we found that many, many kids—if they live with 30 minutes less [sleep] every single day of their adolescence—become very sleep-deprived. And we saw that giving them at least 30 minutes back has a positive effect.”
Indeed, in studies around the globe, late starts have been attributed to an increase in academic achievement and mental wellness, and a reduction in depression, aggression, and dropouts. So why aren’t late starts a given? Dandy thinks it’s because a shifted schedule isn't convenient for adults. “No one’s willing to push it and say ‘no—this is actually science,” she says.
She also cites misperceptions that parents have about their teenagers. “We want them to be responsible and to take ownership of their lives, but we truly don't respect them—and so we inherently default to the reason they stay up late and get up late is that they're lazy. We can’t believe that it could be anything other than that.”
One parent who doesn’t need convincing is Toronto mom of three Jen Lewis, who says she has to “literally pull her twelve-year old out of bed every morning,” while her 15-year-old son claims he is “never ever not tired.’’
“The other day, he came home from school so exhausted, he just laid down on the kitchen floor!” Lewis was so concerned she took her son to see his doctor and to a specialist, but both reported that he was fine—just a night owl. Though Lewis’s kids hit the sack around 10 p.m., they are often still lying awake when she heads up to bed around 11.
Fortunately, her son’s school has a late start once a week, with classes starting at 10:15 a.m on Wednesdays. “It is so wonderful to be able to just let him slumber for that extra hour and a half,” she says. “He is definitely more rested on those days.”
But a 10 a.m. start doesn’t work for everyone. Students with a long commute are often dropped off by parents—many of whom begin their workday at 9 a.m. Smaller cities and towns don’t necessarily have public transit and aren’t walkable, and not all teens have cars. (Plus, depending on the province, some driver's licences require teens to have an adult in the car with them.) Then there are parents who need their teen to help take younger siblings to school, and coaches who schedule early morning sports practices. Later school start times only work if kids are actually able to sleep in, and aren’t devoting that time to homework or extracurriculars.
Another complication for the ECCI pilot was the longer school day, which left some kids—particularly those with after-school activities or who travelled a great distance—struggling to make it home before dark, especially in the winter months. And because the TDSB doesn't bus kids after grade 5 (except those in special education), students had to rely on public transit or their parents.
Later school start times do require an initial adjustment period, and it may not work for every district. But Dandy thinks that with over 100 schools in the TDSB, there is room for a few of them, at least, to embrace a new approach. The ECCI pilot was deemed successful enough that the school maintained the shifted schedule for an additional year before discontinuing it.
Davison agrees: “I think sleep should be prioritized for adolescents. [Later] should be on everyone's agenda as something to look at. We need to think about outside-the-box solutions.”