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The Best Back-to-School Plan for Teens: A Later Start Time

8076832579_bfedc60412.jpgAnybody who has or knows a teeenager knows that getting them up early is a really bad idea. And yet, we get them up early for school all the time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks that we should stop doing that. In a policy statement just released, they say that we should start middle school and high school later.

This isn't just about fewer arguments and less literal yanking of youth out of bed, although most parents would agree that there is real appeal to both. This is about sleep deprivation. It turns out that the majority (59 percent) of middle school students and the vast majority (87 percent) of high school students aren't getting the recommended 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night.

These statistics absolutely ring true to me, both as a parent and a doctor. Getting the sleep hours in is a struggle in our house--and it's rare that my teen patients regularly get 8 hours of sleep a night. Lots of them are getting 5 or 6 hours a night.

Now, anybody who has or knows a teenager knows that this isn't just about school start times. My teens, and my teen patients, are very clear about what keeps them up late at night: schoolwork (which they often don't start until late because of sports, jobs and other activities) and electronic media (usually their phones and computers). As a society, we do really need to rethink all the demands on the time of our youth (the achievement culture has some real downsides) and as parents, we need to do a better job of limiting screens at night.

But there is actual biology at work here. Teen brains are simply programmed to fall asleep later--and then sleep later in the morning. They don't need less sleep, they just need to get it at a different time. And yet, almost half of US high schools have a start time before 8:00 am. In our town, the middle school starts at 7:40 and the high school at 7:45. It's the elementary school kids, the ones we can put to bed early, that get the extra sleep in the morning and get to start at 8:15.

And not getting enough sleep has real consequences. Teens who are sleep-deprived are sleepier during the day, do less well in school, are more likely to be depressed or have other mood problems, and more likely to get into car crashes if they drive. Teens who are tired are more likely to drink caffeine or use (or need) stimulant medication, with all the problems both bring. And chronic sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes down the line.

We don't want any of these consequences, obviously.

What the AAP is suggesting, quite simply, is that we work with the biology of the teen brain instead of against it. Schools that have tried it have found that students do get more sleep (they don't just stay up later because they can sleep later)--and are less likely to be sleepy during the day, or absent.

Yes, there are challenges involved. A later school start means less time for after school activities, and could certainly cause logistical problems for some families. But it's worth tackling those challenges--because more sleep leads healthier, happier and more successful teens.

Their parents might be a bit happier too. I know I would.


Photo credit: © 2012 Rowan Saunders, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

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