We’re Setting Our Teenagers Up For Failure By Expecting Them To Get Up So Early

144891474Teenagers go to bed late, right? In my own very scientific study of all of the teenagers I’ve ever known – I’m always surprised at how late they are able to stay up – and how incredibly hard it is to get them up in the morning.

Brain Pickings.org had a really interesting break down on a study about teenagers and sleep. In his book,  Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep David K. Randall studies how teenagers bodies are essentially wired different than the rest of ours in regards to sleep. It’s pretty interesting:

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone — and then do the same thing every night, for four years.

Randall points out that early start times for school originated in a time when teenagers either had a job after school or needed to get back to work on the farm. Our teenagers still have demands after school, but for most of them those demands have shifted to athletics and after-school programs. Regardless of the fact that our teenagers may not be rushing off to work on the farm, their days are still filled with a lot of activities – activities that are being performed by sleep-deprived bodies and brains. Randall says lack of sleep affects the teenage brain in much the same ways it affects the adult brain – only magnified:

In one study by researchers at Columbia University, teens who went to bed at 10 p.m. or earlier were less likely to suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts than those who regularly stayed awake well after midnight.

In the mid 1990′s, a school district in Minnesota responded to the fatigue of students by pushing the start of the school day and hour and five minutes ahead – to 8:30. There was significant push-back from parents; some needed their kids home earlier to babysit, others just thought the teens would take advantage of the extra hour by staying up later.  The school stuck with their plan for a full academic year. The results were less campus fights, fewer students reporting depression to counselors and a slowed dropout rate. Start times for after school sports were pushed back and participation didn’t diminish. Also, the ”average SAT score for the top 10% of Edina’s students rose from 1288 to 1500 out of 1600 following the implementation of the new schedule. Even the head of the College Board, that institution behind the ominously familiar standardized test, proclaimed the results ‘truly flabbergasting.’”

I realize we’re only looking at one school district, but if such a simple shift can make that big of a difference in helping our teenagers deal with fatigue – it seems like a test more districts should perform, no?

(photo: Getty Images)

You can reach this post's author, Maria Guido, on twitter.
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    • SarahJesness

      In high school (a few years ago) the bus came at like, 6:30 am. Had to get up pretty early. It suuuucked.

    • Ife

      I sort of want to forward this article to my step dad, who even 15 years later likes to complain about what a nonfunctional twatwaffle I was in the mornings as a teenager. It wasn’t my fault, because science!

      • jane

        I am putting “nonfunctional twatwaffle” on my calling cards. I figure anyone who doesn’t appreciate it I wouldn’t want to be friends with anyway.

        Sadly, I don’t yet have calling cards, but if I did, that’s what they would say.

    • Katherine Handcock

      I think there are a couple of schools in Canada that tried similar things, with similar results. But to be honest, there are also teens who are real morning people – I was one (most of the time). I don’t think you’ll ever find one solution that works for everybody. Maybe the best solution would be to have more self-directed school hours – early for those with after-school responsibilities and/or morning people, later for those who find it works better for them. It would be good preparation for university, too, where you have to take much more control over your own study hours.

      • Emily

        Of course there will not be any one-size-fits-all answer to school scheduling. But starting school later for high school students is one-size-fits-most. Study after study has found that teenagers just plain need to go to sleep later and wake up later than people who are older or younger.

        I work at a high school at which classes begin at 8:45. I have also worked at other schools with 8am starting times, and even my personal, anecdotal observations note a huge difference in student alertness in class.

      • Shelly Lloyd

        I have always been a morning person and even as a teenager was one of those horrid morning people too. But I think we are the rare ones. One of the stories that is told about me in my family is that I started putting myself to bed at 7pm when I was only 3 years old. LOL.

      • Katherine Handcock

        My daughter does that! I think that’s one area where I will always have proof she and I are related :-)

      • SusannahJoy

        The thing is though, if you’re a morning person, great! Do your homework in the morning before school! You’re up anyway! Buy if you’re not a morning person, you’re not up. Or at least, your body is telling you that you shouldn’t be. And most teenagers aren’t. Self directed hours might be nice in a more perfect world, but in the meantime we should go with what works for most people.

    • pineapplegrasss

      read in a whinny voice, bc I am sooo not a morning person..”but why does the world have to start so early?”

    • Larkin

      I always used to say this! Why on earth did my elementary school start at 9:00, but my high school started at 7:30? Seems like those two start times should be reversed, to me. Little kids always seem to be able to wake up earlier, and teenagers would benefit from a later start time.

      And for all the parents complaining… how would we like it if the average work day started at 7:30 instead of 9:00? Yikes. And “I need my kid home to babysit” seems like kind of a lame reason to oppose a change that could help your teen get more out of high school.

      • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

        Middle school teacher: I have to be there at 7:25. And right now, I am fighting sleep on the couch. In fact, don’t think I will make it awake till 9 :)

      • Natasha B

        This! Our 9yo doesn’t get on the bus until after 9 and gets home after 4, where the HS kids in our hood go at like 7:20. It just seems insane to me. Edina is in the district next to ours, so maybe by the time my littles are in HS they’ll change the times.

      • SusannahJoy

        I dunno, I think that’s one of the few valid reasons. Child care is crazy expensive, and to suddenly force people who are barely making rent to have to pay for child care that they were getting for free? I can see being upset by that.

    • kay

      I took zero hour (a class before first period) all four years of high school. I think it started at 6:55 or 7? Our teacher felt terrible that we were up so early (she listened to NPR on the way to school and was constantly hearing studies about how terrible it was for us), and had a whole setup for us to heat up food, make coffee/tea, and a couch for when we didn’t have work to be doing. We would make class mixtapes of music to play while we worked too. She was the best. It made early mornings a little less terrible.

      • Shelly Lloyd

        For the first semester of my daughter’s high school year this year was a cooking class and her teacher always had a fresh pot of coffee for the kids when they came in at 7:20 in the morning. My daughter said that some of the other parents complained about it, but she kept the coffee pot for the students anyways. I sent the teacher a thank you card and a vintage set of pyrex mixing bowls for thinking about the students.

    • Ddaisy

      THIS. I walked through all of high school like a zombie because I was so freaking tired all the time.

    • Momma425

      I was on year round swim team, and got up at a whopping 4:30am every monring for practice before school that started at 5am. Then, I would be showered and ready for school at 7:30am. After school, I had another swim practice (school team).
      Then, I quit year round swimming, and joined drill team- same issue. We had practice before school (so that students could participate on drill team and do after school sports) that staterd at 6am- I had to get up at 5:30 to make it on time. After school I had swim practices (for the school team), and then had to do homework when I got home.
      I remember going to my first classes EXHAUSTED in school. Add to that that I didn’t eat breakfast most mornings (senior year mom would insist so I would have a slimfast shake after drill practice, and before first period)- it’s a wonder that I passed.

    • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

      When I was in high school, I fell asleep at least once in every single class I ever took, and that includes gym.

      • practicallyperfectineveryway

        I went to a Catholic school and by the time I was 15 or 16 I remember lots of us snoozing during mass! The nuns weren’t pleased but what could they do?

    • http://www.twitter.com/ilikeswears Dusty

      Our school district did this for one year. Start times for elementary, jr high, and high school were staggered, in that order. You want to talk backlash? The elementary school parents freaked the eff out. And I mean they really pulled all the stops on their outrage. Not only did they not want to get up and take their kids to school that early, they didn’t want to deal with child care for their kids from 3:45 to whenever they got off work. At the end of the year, the district took a survey and the high school kids got shafted back to the early start time.

    • Needs Improvement

      The assumption here that most kids don’t have after school jobs is confusing to me. Legally, you can only work to a certain time, which varies by state, so if you want or need to get in hours, you want to get there quick. Also, I was already at school 3-6 hours late every single day because of theater on the days when I wasn’t working, and I would have been the zombie if that was pushed back an hour or two later.

      Speaking as a teacher now, I wouldn’t hate my start time being pushed back a little, but there are benefits – little rush hour, kids out by three so that then I can start really working.

    • AP

      The first time I got drunk in college, I though, “Oh hey, this is just like being tired in high school!” I was THAT sleep deprived in high school.

    • liamsmom

      The older kids in my neighborhood are out waiting for the bus at like 5:30am, in the dark. That is absolutely ridiculous. There is no way I want to be making sure my kids are out that early when they get that old. And forget a wholesome breakfast at that time in the morning. There is no way teenagers should have to b up that early, especially since most adults don’t get up for 2-3 hours after that.

      • Shelly Lloyd

        My teens are some of those waiting at 5:30 in the dark. Thankfully for us the bus stop is right at the front of our apartment, so they do not have to walk in the dark–but even still I sit with them until the bus gets there.
        And you are right there is no time for a good breakfast, my daughter wont eat that early (she says it makes her queasy to eat so early and I believe her) but my son will grab a eggo waffle and that is about it. There has been a few mornings when he wouldn’t even take the time to toast it and eat it frozen. Teenage boys are so gross.

    • Muggle

      When these studies first started getting noticed when I was a high school junior, my high school responded by starting classes 30 minutes EARLIER.for my senior year.

      Combined with a totally new class schedule (that was even shittier than the one before–seriously, whoever came up with block schedules needs to die in a fire), changes to the dress code that literally nobody knew about until THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, a whole bunch of new rules that made no sense and an extremely unpopular new principal (because the slightly-more-popular old one was basically forced out for covering up a coach getting a student pregnant… fun times!), senior year was fucking horrible and the discipline problems got even worse.

      Oh, and this is a very rural county with one traditional high school (the other is an “early college” you have to be accepted into), and some kids have to take a ferry at ungodly hours.

      • xvala

        Hell to the YES for those evil blocking schedules. Fuckers. I am a grown-ass adult and I can’t concentrate on the same thing for two hours without a break NOW. And they wanted us to do that and be perky as shit about it. (I am not perky as shit about geometry. Ever. Period.)
        My brother had it even worse. One and half hour classes, but the order of the periods was completely off the wall. Four periods a day, but you had four different “combinations” of periods so that everything would get equal amounts of time during the week. Everyone had to carry around a worksheet to keep track of what day they were on, and that wasn’t when another pointless assembly was throwing the whole thing out of whack. Which was always.
        And we had attendance Nazis, to boot. Oh, you missed more than 5 classes in a semester? Even though you had pneumonia? FAIL THE CLASS, THEN, YOU LAZY LITTLE LYING SHIT. (There was an appeal process you could go through, but it was beyond ridiculous how much trouble it was.)
        Our dress code varied by what colors were “gang colors” that week. One time it was blue and yellow, our school colors. Banned. I shit you not.

      • Muggle

        I’m now a grown-ass adult who still has ADHD. I can’t focus on shit for 10 minutes and they expect me to focus for 90? Nawww. I hated those long class periods too because I felt like nothing got done, ever. Even in college, with class times about half that long and shorter semesters, I felt like my classes got a lot more done and moved faster.

        During my senior year of HS, though, the fuckers decided to add a “flex bell” that was meant to be a study hall… except there were 5 classes during this time. I had statistics, and math is nowhere close to being my strong point. I could have used those 90 minutes, but noooo. So not only was I getting up and out of the house earlier (and out of school LATER, though it was only 10 minutes later) I didn’t even get a study hall at school. I also had work after school, and band, AND another class online! No fucking time at all.

        I did have to get an attendance waiver my senior year too for medical issues, but at least mine were well-documented with the school. Yep, we had attendance Nazis too. Though at least getting a waiver was fairly easy.

        As for the dress code, it’s horribly slut-shamey. It only changed for girls because everyone was too lazy to enforce the original dress code. But for some reason, girls could wear shorter skirts than shorts. Not much shorter, mind, but still shorter. And here I was thinking shorts were more modest.

        I’ve told my fiance that if I ever wind up moving back there, and we have kids at that point, I’m homeschooling them.

    • Andrea

      In my area, elementary schools start super early (7 am) middle schools pretty late (9am) and high school in the middle. They stagger it for better use of the school buses and I guess also traffic control.
      The middle schools kids love it. Everyone else hates it. Can’t please everybody.

    • tSubh Dearg

      I think it’s interesting to see how early High School starts in the US. In Ireland all the schools primary and secondary start between 8:45 and 9am. This makes for pretty hellish traffic most mornings and there is a lot of talk about staggering start times, but it hasn’t happened yet.
      My cousin who grew up in Spain went to a school with staggered start times. One group of students came in at something like 6am and were done for the day at lunch and the other group came in at lunch and stayed till about 8pm. It seemed to work really well for her – she was in the later group.

      • xvala

        My freshman year of high school had staggered start times just like you described. Seniors/juniors started early and were out by lunch, bus students started an hour later and were out the period after lunch, and freshmen/sophomores started latest and were out at around 2:00 pm. Unfortunately, it was because our school was so utterly overcrowded, it would violate several fire codes to have everybody inside the school all at once. (The school was built for a maximum of 1900 people. My freshman year there were 2800 students.)

    • val97

      First bell for my high school aged son is at 7:15am. He’s the first one out the door in the morning. He also has his own self-enforced bedtime of 9pm because he hates to be tired at school. He is such a conscientious student and tries really hard, but he’s not naturally gifted, and I think the early mornings are difficult for him. Many parents have tried to get the schools to change the start times, but the schools have said it’s a busing issue and there’s no budget to add more buses or drivers.

    • Shelly Lloyd

      For my teenagers their bus comes at 5 fucking 30 in the morning. I have to get two cranky teenagers out of by around 4:45 at the crack of evil.
      Thanks to growing up on a farm, I have always been a morning person, even when I was a teenager. Getting up at 6 am is no problem for me. About the time the sun starts to peep over the horizon I am awake, but even for me waking at at 4:45 is God Awful.

    • ElleJai

      Everyone in my state/country starts between 8.30-9 all through. Primary (Prep (a grade before 1) to 6) and high school (7-12) are both on a similar schedule. I think high school had home room at 8.45 then started class about 5-10 minutes later, while primary was around 9. Both finish between 3 and 3.30, depending on the school.

      I think I attended home room about once a year, nearly giving my teacher a heart attack. I had special permission – as long as I got passing grades I could just about wander in when I wanted. Mind you I was also heavily depressed and anxious, which would be where the “special” comes in.

    • Rachel Sea

      The only way I survived high school was by sleeping through English class freshman through junior year. My teacher and I had an Understanding: I’d teach the units on Shakespeare, and he’d look the other way when I slept behind my book. Everyone won.

    • footnotegirl

      I will never be a morning person and certainly wasn’t in high school. The first year I went to a boarding school, so it was a little easier to get up because EVERYONE was getting up at the same time, and since it was all girls and uniforms, getting ready didn’t take any real time. I was back home for the last three years, and luckily at a private school where a) we could make our own schedules and b) I could easilly walk or bike to the school, no bus. Every semester we could schedule a ‘free period’ supposedly for studying, and I made darn sure mine was first period every day. By senior year, I had enough credits that I effectively had three free periods a day, so I didn’t even go in to school until after lunch.
      It’s honestly ridiculous what we do to students in this country. Not only are the early hours a disgrace, but most kids get about 20 minutes for lunch, and that includes getting to the lunch room, waiting in line, and bathroom time. No other country does things this way, and they’re all pretty much doing better than we are.