Sleep-Deprived Teenagers? Starting School Later Could Help Them Catch Up

Feb 14, 2014

It’s 6:35 a.m. on a recent school day: time for Wendy VanKoevering to do the rounds. Anyone who’s had to wake up a teenager in the morning knows it can be a struggle.

“Hey Spence? Shower time, sweetheart. Will you get up now?" she said.

As 14-year-old Spencer VanKoevering and his 18-year-old sister, Katie VanKoevering, began their silent, bleary-eyed routines, their mother said mornings have been hard ever since Katie started middle school and had to start getting up a lot earlier.

The Seattle School Board is considering a proposal that would let teens sleep in and start school later. Younger children tend to be early risers, so their bell times would be earlier.  Many parents, doctors and researchers say flipping the bell times to let teens get more sleep would benefit them academically and emotionally.

Waking Up Crying

Katie is in her senior year at Roosevelt High School. She said even getting ready in the morning is stressful when you’re tired.

“You know how, like, when you’re going on a trip and you have to get the really early plane and you’re up at three in the morning and you’re trying to get all your stuff together and not forget a suitcase?" Katie said. "That’s kind of how it feels.”

Katie couldn’t fall asleep before midnight – or later. Katie’s doctor recommended melatonin and breathing exercises, but nothing worked.

“She was waking up crying in the morning because she was so tired," Wendy VanKoevering said. Katie didn't have a computer in her room, or a phone to text on, so it didn't make sense that she couldn't sleep.

Katie said her first-period statistics class is especially difficult without enough sleep. By sixth period, she’s trying not to nod off and become target practice for her teacher. “She has a stuffed toy she throws at you when you fall asleep, which happens at least once a day,” she said.

Spencer and Katie VanKoevering eat breakfast in silence. "It's hard to be witty when you're this tired," Katie said.
Spencer and Katie VanKoevering eat breakfast in silence. "It's hard to be witty when you're this tired," Katie said.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

Flipping Bell Times

The answer may seem simple: Teens should just go to bed earlier.

But that's easier said than done, said University of Washington biology professor Horacio de la Iglesia, who studies circadian rhythms and is part of a group of parents, teachers and scientists urging Seattle Public Schools to push back start times for middle and high schools.

“When they hit puberty, they start needing to go to bed later and waking up later, and there’s not much they can do about it,” de la Iglesia said

A natural bedtime for most teenagers is between 11 p.m. and midnight, he said. And adolescents’ growing bodies need a lot of rest: up to nine hours a night, if not more.

De la Iglesia said that means 8 a.m. is about as early as teens should be expected to wake up. “All the research seems to indicate that a minimum start time of 8:30 is what you need.”

That could be achieved by flipping the bell times with elementary schools, which now start later. That makes sense, because younger children naturally wake up earlier.

In recent weeks, both the Seattle teachers’ union and school nurses’ association passed resolutions supporting later start times for teenagers.

Unknown Variables

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda said he thinks there would be benefits to moving the bell times. And so far, most of the community input on the proposal has been positive.

“But we’ve also heard from some of the parents out there who are concerned," Banda said. "Parents who have elementary-aged students are concerned about having their students attending school at a very, very early time. And I think most of their concerns have to do with the potential of them being out at a bus stop before seven in the morning.”

Banda said reversing the bell times would also make it harder for older students to babysit younger family members in the afternoons, and there are concerns that school sports would be affected. Low-income families often depend on students’ after-school jobs.

“I think that there are just a lot of unknown variables and that we have to go out there and make sure that we communicate this well with our community, and that we know what those impacts will be," he said. "Not only on our operations here but know what the impacts will be on their children.”

It could take up to two years of community outreach to see what families think, as well as to conduct studies of what it might cost the district to change school start times, Banda said.

Big changes to bell times can be a tough sell. A decade ago, the Issaquah School District considered the issue for years before leaving start times the same.

But the movement to let teens sleep in is growing nationwide. Districts across the country that have moved bell times later for middle and high school students report academic improvements and better attendance.

Public health officials say aligning school start times with teenagers’ biological clocks could also reduce car crashes, depression and obesity, which are all linked to sleep deprivation.

The Seattle School Board is scheduled to take up school start times at a retreat on March 8. If board members agree, the next step could be a district-wide impact study.