“We’re being cruel to teenagers by forcing them to function in the morning”

DJemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia Minaret at night

Fruit stalls against the medina walls

Me looking out from the balcony

I have returned from Marrakesh (which is an incredible city), to this article from the Western Mail posted on our HG forum about teenagers and sleep:

“Timetabling academic subjects such as English and maths for the start of the school day could be putting teenagers at a disadvantage. A leading scientist claims teenagers follow a different sleep pattern from children and adults which means they’re more awake in the afternoon than in morning. The findings defy the traditional notion that mornings are the best time to learn because that is when pupils are most alert.

“Russell Foster, a professor in circadian neuroscience at Oxford University, said making minor changes to the structure of the school day to take this into account could boost pupils’ performances. According to research presented by Prof Foster in a talk, ‘Society, the Brain and Education – Body Clocks and Sleep’, our bodies are design so that bed times and wake times drift later as children reach puberty, meaning that teenagers and young adults prefer afternoons or evenings for both intellectual or physical activities. This pattern continues up until the age of around 20 when it starts to reverse.

“Prof Foster said forcing teenagers to fit in with our early-to-rise/early-to-bed culture, could be contributing to making them one of the most sleep-deprived groups in society. Although the optimum amount of sleep for teenagers is nine hours, studies in America have shown the average teenager gets only 7.5 hours. Sustained lack of sleep can result in poor performance ranging from impaired vigilance, poor memory, reduced mental and physical reaction times, reduced motivation and depression.

“Prof Foster said small changes such as later starting time for schools would greatly improve alertness and the mental abilities of teenagers during their morning lessons. ‘Teenagers’ body clocks can be delayed by two to four hours,’ he said. ‘Our adult body clocks are starting to gear up their cognitive functions at about 8am but in teenagers this won’t start until 10am or as late as midday. Studies in Germany and America show that when schools have changed start times to later, exam success has gone up and truancy and depression have gone down.’

“He said the problem was also evident among university and college students, and was worsened by the fact that many students were now working longer hours to finance their degrees and were using potentially damaging stimulants to stay awake. ‘It is cruel to impose a cultural pattern on teenagers that makes them underachieve,’ he said. ‘Most school regimes force teenagers to function at a time of day that is suboptimal, and may university students are exposed to considerable dangers from sleep deprivation. This imposition may trigger a cascade of events which at best amplify the problems of adolescents and at worst may precipitate a crisis for the developing brain.’

“Rhys Williams of NUT Cymru, said if schools were to change, they would be more likely to move towards the European model which sees pupils sitting at their desk as early as 7.30am.”

– Perhaps this could also attribute a little to increased onset of psychosis in the teenage years, which is often triggered by a lack of REM sleep as I have discussed before in the Bipolar post.

Posted by: Eleanor


4 responses to ““We’re being cruel to teenagers by forcing them to function in the morning”

  1. Welcome back.

    There has been a lot of talk here in Ontario (Canada) regarding high schools and teenage sleep patterns. Several studies have concluded that the current start and finish times are putting undue stress on students. The current times, and I’m sure this is true in England and elsewhere, are based around the 19th century farming schedule… school starts after the farm animals have been tended to, and finishes in time for field work: 9am to 3:30pm.

    Lately the Ontario school system has instituted a mandatory “volunteer” service for all high school kids… they each must complete 40 hours of volunteer service, I’m not sure if that’s per year or totalled through their entire four years. But what’s happened is the School Boards have moved the start / finish times to: 8am – 2:30pm so the kids have time after school to “volunteer”.

    Most of the studies I’ve seen regarding Ontario schools conclude that students would be best served with a 10am to 4:30pm schedule, or even an 11am to 5pm timetable.

    Most of these studies do conclude that lack of proper sleeping patterns is damaging to the teens. However, I haven’t seen any studies looking into psychosis and teenage/school sleep patterns.

    I’ll try to find some of the Ontario studies for you.

  2. Thanks!

    ‘The current times, and I’m sure this is true in England and elsewhere, are based around the 19th century farming schedule… school starts after the farm animals have been tended to, and finishes in time for field work: 9am to 3:30pm.’

    hah – I never realised that!

    Reminds me of something I read once that the dimensions for current British railway tracks are still based on the original spacing of wheels on Roman chariots.

    Some studies would be very interesting – I am fascinated by this – I used to start college at 8.30am – and did spend most of my mornings falling asleep in lessons. I wonder what the difference to school productivity could be if it was properly balanced around teenagers natural circadian rhythms. The problem is, what would you do with all the early waking adult teachers in the mornings!

    The link with schizophrenia is me idly musing on a possiblity – it would be very interesting to see if there was any studies – as schizophrenia usually first presents at adolescence. Perhaps our society and education system is set up in such a way that it happens to limit REM sleep in teenagers, which might unwittingly exacerbate potential mental problems such as psychosis…

  3. This is all so very interesting. I wonder if such studies are being done in America. We seem to be so far behind others in this research or the application of measures to adjust for it.

  4. As promised. I know there are more, Ontario-centric studies, when I find them I’ll leave the links.

    This is from 2006:
    ‘”Sleepiness” is serious in adolescence: Two surveys of 3235 Canadian students’

    “Evidence is growing that sleep problems in adolescents are significant impediments to learning, cognition and memory. Sleep problems negatively affect behaviour, attainment of social competence and quality of life and are more prevalent than realized by education and health professionals. There is little indication of any degree of awareness in the education or health care systems in Canada sufficient to initiate appropriate interventions.”

    This is a list of American sleep studies, a few of which are on students:

    This is a Canadian story regarding an American study on students and sleeping:

    This is a PDF of a 2002 Canadian study, one of the first to look at Students and Sleep deprivation:

    This is an article from The Toronto Star about a study proving a link between good sleep and improved memory:

    This is a parent/student group trying to get school start times changed to reflect the need for good sleep:

    This is from today’s New York Times:
    “Scientists have discovered a new link between sleep and memory that seriously challenges the wisdom of skimping on time spent sleeping.
    Experiments show that when people learn a new skill, their performance does not improve until after they have had more than six and preferably eight hours of sleep. Without adequate sleep, researchers say, skills and even new factual information may not get properly encoded into the brain’s memory circuits. Moreover, a person’s intelligence may be less important than a good night’s sleep in forming many kinds of memories. ”

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