“Sleep is the best meditation.” — The Dalai Lama
As a nation, we have a reputation for being DO-ers. We invent, we discover, we create, and above all, we WORK. We have longer work days and work weeks and less vacation than most other nations, and less generous sick leave and family leave policies. And now that technology has opened up 24/7/365 connectedness and productivity, our culture increasingly communicates that we should be working — doing something — nearly all the time.
While this culture of work is generally an adult world, the model we have created for ourselves as adults filters down to and informs the culture we have created for our children, as well, both directly and indirectly. Our schedules very directly impact theirs, of course; parents must juggle work schedules with school schedules, often multiple school schedules, to manage the logistics of everyday life. Indirectly, we communicate to our children what is important in life — and that seems to most frequently focus on work and achievement and productivity and accomplishments. While we undoubtedly also reflect many other values to our children, there is one important part of life that largely goes unnoticed and not discussed, particularly as our children get older: sleep.
Intellectually, we all “know” that we need about eight hours of sleep per night — a third of our lives — for optimal health. (Then again, we also “know” that we should exercise every day and eat less fat and floss, too, but it’s pretty obvious that everyone doesn’t always do what they “know” they should do.) However, it is simply not part of American culture to talk about sleep or to value it. We value DOING, which is what happens when you’re awake. Those who stay up later and sleep less can DO more, and they are often richly rewarded for the extra time they can spend working/producing/DOING.
Sleep is, in fact, a largely invisible part of life — unless you have a baby, in which case sleep is the most precious and impossibly elusive resource on earth. When we have infants, it is completely normal for adults to worry about, talk about, and try to manage sleep, both for themselves and for their children. However, as they grow up and develop schedules more like our own, there isn’t much discussion about sleep, really. There are bedtimes and there are wake-up times, but the rest of it goes unexamined. Parents don’t really know how long it takes their children to fall asleep, nor what they do to fall asleep, nor how well they sleep (do they get up in the middle of the night every night? If they make noise on the way to the bathroom, perhaps you do know, but otherwise, you are asleep, so of course you can’t really tell). In fact, research shows that parents are unaware of what their children’s sleep habits are truly like: “71% of parents [believe] their adolescent [is] obtaining sufficient sleep,” while in actuality, high school seniors average less than seven hours per night. Only 59% of middle schoolers get enough sleep every night, a problem which worsens until 87% of high schoolers are undersleeping. In Pennsylvania, the figure for 9th-12th graders is 74.4%.
On the flip side, do your children have any idea what time you go to sleep, how long it takes you to fall asleep, or what time you wake up? If they haven’t explicitly asked you about it, they probably don’t. It’s hard to know any of these things unless you talk about them, and Americans don’t really talk about the way we sleep, we talk about DOING things. The details of our sleeping lives just don’t really come up in conversation often unless problems emerge that call attention to it.
Children who are of school age settle in to a regular schedule, with their days more aligned with the regular workday. This kind of daily regularity of structure contributes to better sleep for them, fortunately. They need — and generally get — 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. And all is well for a while in elementary school, until….
This period of dramatic change in developing bodies begins when children are around 10-12 years old, in middle school — a phrase which can make adults of all ages shudder — and continues through the college years, when they have become (mostly) adults. There are myriad upheavals that happen to adolescents, of course, but along with the voice changes and the irritability and dermatological drama come significant changes to that invisible third of life — and again, because they are invisible, we don’t generally think or talk about them…except, perhaps, sarcastically.
The teenager up until midnight and asleep until two in the afternoon is a universal cultural reference point, and is generally employed to invoke parental eye-rolling at the “laziness” of the teenager and how ridiculous such a schedule is. And it is, in fact, deeply dysfunctional in our culture, as reflected in the many exasperated questions from frustrated parents, such as
“How can you possibly get anything done if you are asleep all day?” or
“Why can’t you just go to sleep at a normal hour, so you can wake up at a normal hour?” or the ever-popular
“Why are you so impossible to wake up in the mornings?!?”
Unfortunately, it seems that they actually have an excuse for what looks like laziness to an adult eye: they truly, honestly cannot help it.
The rhythms of sleep and wakefulness — circadian rhythms — are determined by biology, not by culture. The pineal gland, tucked right in the middle of the brain where it sits atop the spine, secretes a hormone called melatonin which induces sleepiness; melatonin production and the setting of the sun were the only sleep cues we needed back in our caveman days.
While melatonin is a reliable sleep aid and handy jet-lag remedy, we now understand that it is not secreted evenly across the lifetime. A major shift in hormone production is of the hallmark event of puberty, and melatonin, one of these hormones, causes a dramatic shift in adolescent sleep-wake patterns. They not only consciously want to stay up later as they grow up, but their bodies do, too, and melatonin production moves about two to three hours later. Notably, their sleep needs have not changed — they still need 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night. Their bodies do not begin making melatonin “until around 11 p.m. and continue in peak production until about 7 a.m. and [stop] at 8 a.m.” What this means, of course, is that the child who woke up naturally at 6:30 a.m. on the weekends becomes… not that child anymore.
Change of address
The easiest way to understand the colossally inconvenient impact of this shift is to imagine that you have lived in Oregon all your life and then you suddenly move to Maine. For whatever reason, you just cannot adjust to the time shift, and you cannot move your jet lag out of your way: you are frozen in your Oregonian time zone. Of course, life in Maine goes on as usual, whether or not you are used to the time change: you have to be at work and the kids have to be at school. There are deadlines and plane schedules and appointments… and they are all three hours earlier than your brain thinks they should be. If you have until now happily woken up at 7:00 a.m. every day of your life, waking up in Maine every morning is like having to wake up at 4:00 a.m. instead. And when Mainers are heading to bed at around 10:30 p.m., it’s just not even close to bedtime in your brain. You know you need to sleep for eight hours, but at 11:00 p.m. in Maine, it’s only 8:00 p.m. in your Oregonian brain, and you simply are not sleepy. Period. You can meditate, you can drink chamomile tea, or you can lie in bed and stare at the ceiling — but if you’re not sleepy, it’s not going to happen. Your pineal gland didn’t get the change-of-address memo, so it’s still making melatonin as though you live in Oregon, which is profoundly useless.
It is precisely this situation in which we find our middle- and high-school students. Waking up a 15-year-old at 7 a.m. is like trying to wake them up at 4 a.m., — every day — which we’d all agree is not an easy task. And we wouldn’t even resent them for being grumpy and impossible.
By living this way for prolonged periods of time, adolescents and teens develop chronic sleep deprivation, a condition doctors actually recognize as being “pathologically sleepy.” They can lose up to 120 minutes of sleep per night during the school year. And this drowsiness is not just inconvenient, it’s medically significant: being chronically sleep-deprived in this way results in “levels of sleepiness commensurate with those of patients with sleep disorders such as narcolepsy.”
Out of sync
The main problem with this, of course, is that life keeps clicking along on the same schedule it’s always had, despite this seismic shift in their brains. And that inconvenient fact is where the trouble lies. Their biology means that we should not expect them to wake up that early, but we have neatly organized their days to maximize the complications caused by delayed melatonin: school starts early in the morning, often before the elementary students who naturally wake up earlier than they do so we can coordinate bussing arrangements.
Unsurprisingly, making them go to school even earlier than when they were younger precisely when they need to sleep later causes problems. It’s like watching a horse walk sideways: can they do it? Yes, they can. Is it a natural, comfortable movement? No, it is not. You can tell that the horse is thinking about each step, carefully plotting it out; it’s obvious to even the most casual observer.
Similarly, go into any high school at the beginning of the day and look around: zombie teenagers slouch from locker to classroom everywhere you look. They are bleary-eyed in class, with 28% of them falling asleep in at least one class every week. (And 20% of them fell asleep while doing their homework the night before.) Teachers will tell you that morning classes are low-energy, low-engagement, and often low-performing, a claim backed up by lower grades and standardized subject test scores in first-period classes. To respond to this widely-observed phenomenon, many schools have cleverly adjusted their daily schedules so classes rotate through the different time slots — so students are not consistently falling asleep in the same class every day. That complicated option can make scheduling teachers and classrooms a Herculean task, but the administrators who make the effort are trying their hardest to offset the sleep-deprived nature of the students who file in every morning.
There are actually much more serious consequences to sleep deprivation than just being inattentive in Trigonometry, though. Studies reflect significant and long-term negative health outcomes, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysfunction like Type II diabetes. These sleep-deprived children can turn to caffeine to keep them awake (a culturally acceptable practice modeled on what they know adults do), but its stimulant properties can further disrupt their natural circadian rhythms and compound the problem; some may even turn to non-medical use of stimulant medications to help them stay awake. Alarmingly, early school start times can have an additional negative effect on teenagers’ safety, as they are beginning drivers: police report over 100,000 fatigue-induced, or “drowsy driving,” car crashes each year, more than half of which occur in this population. Early school start times contribute directly to this problem — and 43% of American high schools start before 8:00 a.m.
Obvious… but fraught
“Not a single excuse we’ve heard [about the difficulties of moving school start times later] relates to education. We should send kids to…school in a condition that promotes learning rather than interfering with it.” — Mark Mahowald, Professor of Neurology & Director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center
Given that adolescents cannot be expected to be at their best early in the morning, and that early start times contribute to physical harm and long-term effects, the sensible thing to do is clearly to move school start times to later in the morning — preferably to 8:30 a.m. or later, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control. Even Congress agrees: the House of Representatives passed a (non-binding) resolution, the “Zzz’s to A’s Resolution,” recommending that secondary schools should start “no earlier than 9:00 a.m.” because of the overwhelming concordance in research-based recommendations. Students will be more awake in school, their grades will go up, and everyone’s happy.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
To some degree, it is. In one middle school study, starting classes just one hour later resulted in improvements on standardized tests “comparable to decreasing the class size by one third,” a change that would be inconceivable for any school if approached from a purely budgetary angle.
On qualitative measures, the results are similarly positive. Teachers report happier, more motivated students and less sleeping in morning classes when schools start later. School nurses see fewer students in the campus health center for fatigue-related complaints (and in students stopping in unapologetically for naps). Administrator data reflects steep declines in tardiness and absences, and counselors see significant reductions in behavioral issues and mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation. Traffic accidents in one county that delayed school start times “decreased by 16.5%…whereas those for the state as a whole increased 7.8% across the same time period.” Even within a school district, two similar schools compared the crash data on 17- and 18-year-old students, and the one with earlier start times had significantly more crashes than the one starting later. One study found especially dramatic results: “a crash rate reduction in 16- to 18-year-olds of 65% and 70% in two of the four high schools studied,” and noted that the school with the latest start time had the steepest decline in crashes.
Academic results of moving school start times to a later hour can be difficult to analyze effectively, given variations in teacher quality, course difficulty, school resources, grading standards, etcetera, between schools, even within the same district. One research study at the Air Force Academy took advantage of the institution-wide standardization of both academics and overall life during freshman year — encompassing everything from how many calories each student eats per meal, what time they wake up and go to bed, how many classes they have, and the amount of exercise they get per day — to actually carry out an experimental study. Researchers randomly assigned students to a schedule that either had a first-period class or did not, and measured results across five years, and found that this 50-minute change yielded academic improvement not only for the first period classes, but for the entire school day for students starting later. In fact, the size of the effect was comparable to another expensive “upgrade”: the results of the later start time were equivalent to an entire standard deviation of improvement in teacher quality.
Best of all is the data from students, themselves. A doubtful parent could be excused for thinking that a teenager allowed to go to school later would just stay up later, therefore making a scheduling shift moot. Instead, surprisingly, they actually do increase the amount of sleep they get. Their pineal glands, after all, don’t make conscious decisions about playing more video games (or studying more, the little angels) because school starts later. Their body chemistry stays steady, meaning that they get sleepy at the same time, regardless of schedule. So when the first bell rings an hour later, adolescents actually get the benefit of that time: the percentage of those who get eight or more hours of sleep per night goes from 37% to 50%. On average, moving a start time later by an hour yields about 45 minutes more sleep, and in one study, shifting the start time 30 minutes actually yielded 48 minutes more sleep.
Given such clear evidence, both causal and correlative, it would seem beyond obvious that all middle schools and high schools should immediately move their start times to 8:30 a.m. at the earliest, if not to 9:00 a.m. Understandably, there are myriad adjustments required to accomplish this: transportation needs to be adjusted, which can have ripple effects in traffic patterns; athletic schedules need to be adjusted, as well, which can be difficult if opposing schools do not have schedules that line up; and after-school activities will similarly need to shift, which can result in logistical complications across band, drama, honor societies, community service organizations, etc. For families, too, there are substantial changes to make: students who got home earlier to take care of younger siblings will not have the same arrival times; start times for many jobs align with the current school schedule; and students who get out of school later are less available for after-school jobs, which in some cases generate income necessary for the family.
Despite these hurdles, school districts around the country have committed to this type of change, and it generally takes about two to three years of planning, community education, and reorganization to enact the change. Independent schools have the luxury of changing their start times with fewer entanglements in terms of municipal transportation, etc., but they do still have to spend time working with families to plan around making such a shift.
Given the results, it seems obvious that the outcomes are well worth such efforts, even in purely economic terms. An analysis by the Brookings Institution reflected that shifting school start times later returned $9 for every $1 invested, and could be as much as $200 for every $1 in some districts.
But perhaps the most valuable effects of such a change are not easily measured: students’ quality of life improves, with increased self-regulation and less irritability and frustration. Families report fewer conflicts and smoother mornings, and even spend more time together. Those are improvements for which many a parent who has had to scrape a grumpy middle schooler or a grouchy high schooler out of bed would pay dearly.
Sleep has long been understood to be invaluable to quality of life, though in today’s instantaneous-response and always-on world, perhaps we have forgotten. Adults spend a lot of time ignoring and overriding our bodies’ signals about food and work and sleep, after all. Our children’s bodies know, though, as did Thomas Dekker, an English dramatist in the late 1500s:
“Sleep is that golden chain that ties our health and our bodies together.”
Sweet dreams…. Do your gifted kids struggle with getting to sleep? Staying asleep? Does your infant or toddler spend more hours awake than you do? Many parents find that gifted kids sleep far less than their same-age counterparts. And yet, a few gifted parents report that their kids sleep more than average, and seem to require more hours of sleep than the nighttime allows. Any of these issues can make us feel alone, and often make us feel exhausted! And what about gifted adults’ sleep? Click through to the Hoagies Gifted Blog Hop for more sleepy ideas!
 Owens, J. A., R. Au, M. Carskadon, R. Millman, & A. R, Wolfson. (2014). School start times for adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, Pediatrics, Vol. 134 (3), pgs. 642-649. Accessed here on October 27, 2017. This study is the most robust available, and reflects synthesis of hundreds of research studies about sleep and adolescents and school times; as a bonus, it’s also highly readable.
 Prevalence of short sleep duration on an average school night among high school students, by state. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2015
 Carskason M. A., C. Acebo, & O. G. Jenni. (2004). Regulation of adolescent sleep: implications for behavior. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Vol. 1021, pgs. 276-291.
 Carrell, S., T. Maghakian, & J. W. West. (2011) A’s from Zzzz’s? The Causal effect of school start tie on the academic achievement of adolescents. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Vol. 3, pg. 62-81.
 Carskadon, M. A., A. R. Wolfson, C. Acebo, O. Tzischinsky, & R. Siefer. (1998). Adolescent sleep patterns, circadian timing, and sleepiness at a transition to early school days. Sleep, Vol. 21 (8), pgs. 871-881. As cited in Owens (2014).
 Cortes, K. E., J. Bricker, C. Rohlfs. (2010). The role of specific subjects in education production functions: Evidence from morning classes in Chicago public high schools. The BE Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy. Vol. 12, (1).
 AAP Policy Statement, 643.
 AAP Policy Statement, 644.
 House Concurrent Resolution #176: “The Zzz’s to A’s Resolution,” 2007. 111th Congress of the United States of America, House of Representatives, introduced July 31, 2009. Available here and accessed November 7, 2017.
 Wahlstrom, K., B. Dretzke, M. Gordon, K. Peterson, K. Edwards, & J. Gdula. (2014). Examining the Impact of Later School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study. Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
 Carrell et al., 80.
 AAP Policy Statement, 644.
 Jacob, B. A., & J. E. Rockoff. (2011) Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement – Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments. The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC. Available here and accessed October 31, 2017.