Later school start time? Why parents need to manage teen workload and sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement Monday that supports later school starts to help tired teens. The bigger question might be, how can parents help teens manage their existing activities to get more sleep?

Kevin Bennett/Abderdeen American News/AP/FILE
In this March 14, 2012 file photo, Jan Palmer, a biology teacher at Central High School in Aberdeen, S.D., top right, leads her Advanced Placement/Rising Scholars biology class through a practice test. Classes at Central High generally start at 8:10 a.m. A new policy from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying classes for all teens until at least 8:30 a.m. to curb their widespread lack of sleep, which has been linked with poor health, bad grades, car crashes and other problems. The policy was published online Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, in Pediatrics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement asking schools to adopt later start times to accommodate sleep-deprived teens in order to improve their health and productivity. But the AAP policy statement leaves some parents wondering if the problem lies in the activity overload and not the early start.

Few parents would argue against the benefits of having more sleep. However, I would argue the question here come down to: Where do those Zs come from?

According to the AAP, chronic sleep loss contributes to higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, increases in car accidents, poorer grades, and obesity.

As the mom of four boys ages 10, 15, 19, and 20, who has seen teen schedules overloaded with extra-curricular activities, sports, homework, jobs, and socializing (which is also important), all pushing bedtime later into the night, I wonder if this is more about shifting around the slices of a pie, rather than deciding the pie’s just too small to go around.

It also reminds me that my teens, perhaps even more than my younger child, need some help in getting unwinding in the evenings. Some experts suggest ways parents can help, including limiting caffeine intake, unplugging from all screens at least one hour before bed, and planning ahead bedtimes by backing up the clock nine hours from when the teen needs to wake up the next day.  

Even if they are not spending those nine hours sleeping, my sons have benefited over the years from learning some mental relaxation techniques involving meditation, or listening to music at night in place of video gaming or watching TV to unwind. Reading – instead of spending time on a computer or engaging with Facebook – has also helped to get my sons unwired from the day.

The policy statement, released Monday, shares research that that reports that insufficient sleep in adolescents is “an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”

A study by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota which came out prior to the AAP report concluded that after the Minneapolis Public School District changed the starting times of seven high schools from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., “the results are encouraging.”

“Dr. Wahlstrom found that students benefited by obtaining five or more extra hours of sleep per week,” according to a report on the study by The Sleep Foundation.

She also found improvement in attendance and enrollment rates, increased daytime alertness, and decreased student-reported depression. Many experts suggest that adolescents should get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each night, however, few actually get that much sleep.

At first glance, this solution to delayed start times seemed to me to be one that kids could use as a great reason to stay up even later. So, I took a straw poll on Facebook to find out what other parents think about the later school-start idea.

Responses ranged from parents arguing that, it’s all about the bedtime, to it’s all about teen body clocks being wired to stay up late. Also, the AAP report also notes that teens, more than preteens and adults, are apt to stay up until 11 p.m. on average.

“The AAP’s new recommendation stems from scientific studies of teenagers’ sleep rhythms. According to medical research, teens have decidedly different sleep patterns than either preteens or adults and are typically programmed to go to sleep no earlier than 11 p.m. Also, they need about nine hours of sleep,” reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Jennnifer Castka-Peronnet, a mom from Norfolk, Va. posted on Facebook: “Our Pediatrician - who has had teenagers, has said that it is physically impossible for most teenagers to go to sleep early enough to get enough sleep before the 6:30 bus. A lot would need to change to change the school schedule, but accommodations can be made.”

“I think we have to teach our children how to regulate their sleep, especially in high school. It is a life skill they should perfect in college, so they can function in the business world post-graduation,” said Sarah Westella, another Norfolk mom, who is local youth pastor. “People who master this early on have the added benefit of better, more restorative sleep and higher function. Not everyone has to be a morning person, but everyone should be able to made sleep adjustments accordingly.”

Marsha Stallworth-Nelson of Virginia Beach, Va., mom of two adult sons, commented, “I think they'll overcompensate by staying up late at night. That also means drama at the bus and or bus stops they share with the already later crowd. Early in allows them to work an early shift or extra-curriculars after school. Too many things affected by that one aspect.”

When discussing the delay of school start time, it’s valuable to consider how late in the evening extra-curricular activities such as sports, music rehearsals, and academic events often run on a daily basis.

Somewhere in there teens must also do homework and many have jobs after school as well.

A few days ago, my husband pointed out that one local high school’s football schedule included a game that didn’t begin until 9 p.m..

That made me wonder, if school start times are delayed, will high school coaches choose to shift practices to early morning before school rather than after, in order to not cut into family time and evening routines? Even then, the pieces of the day would be shifted, versus freeing up time for more sleep.

At the end of the day, there are only so many hours in the day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has driven home the point that our teens need to spend more hours sleeping. From that informed point, perhaps the parenting piece is to be found in helping kids to reduce the load on their schedules by prioritizing and perhaps cutting back on some of the things that are cutting into their sleep time.

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