In some cases, early school start times make sense. Administrators facing budget cuts and limited use of school buildings may need to schedule classes early to accommodate other groups using school facilities. Parents who have to go to work early in the morning may not have anyone to watch their kids, making early class times an ideal solution. Unfortunately, teens are the ones suffering when classes start too early. Teens have increased levels of melatonin in their bloodstreams very early in the morning. Melatonin helps regulate the sleep cycle, so high melatonin levels cause sleepiness. When the alarm clock rings at 5:00 in the morning, it is very difficult for a teen to overcome the natural effects of melatonin and get ready for school on time. The effects of sleep deprivation are so serious that they even have an impact on absenteeism and dropout rates.
Psychological Effects of Sleep Deprivation
It is important for parents and educators to understand the effects of sleep deprivation on adolescents. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that sleep deprivation causes several changes in mood, with some adolescents experiencing a lack of motivation, anxiety, irritability and even some symptoms of depression. Sleep deprivation also has a negative impact on performance, as a lack of sleep causes fatigue, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, difficulty paying attention, slowed reaction times, lack of energy, frequent errors, forgetfulness and impaired decision-making skills. All of these can have an impact on academic performance, particularly performance on tests and successful completion of classroom assignments.
Business researchers know that sleep deprivation is one of the reason some employees are absent from work. The same holds true for adolescents who do not get enough sleep each night. When a teen wakes up feeling exhausted, the thought of going to school might send him or her right back under the covers. If sleep deprivation is a chronic problem, adolescents may start missing one day of school every week or even missing several days at a time in an attempt to “catch up” on missed sleep. Unfortunately, one day of good sleep is not enough to make up for weeks of sleep deprivation. In an article for Scientific American, Molly Webster explains that those who do not get enough sleep for several nights in a row carry “sleep debt.” Even staying home and sleeping for several extra hours is not enough to cancel out this debt. The best way to “repay” this debt is by sleeping an extra hour or two each night, but many teens do not have this luxury. Hours of homework and extracurricular activities each night make it impossible to go to bed any earlier than usual, and early school start times mean that they cannot sleep later in the morning.
Every U.S. state has compulsory attendance laws for students. These laws spell out exactly who must attend school and for how long they must attend. Students in Alabama must attend school between the ages of 7 and 16. The District of Columbia has stricter regulations, which require that students attend school from the ages of 5 to 18. Truancy refers to an intentional absence from compulsory schooling, which is different from excused absences caused by illness or the death of a family member. This is a serious problem for students, as excessive truancy may lead to the failure of an entire grade. Some schools will not give class credit to a student who has missed more than a set number of days in the year. Unless the student makes up his or her absences via summer school or detention, the student must repeat the same courses in order to graduate. Sleep deprivation is just one of the many causes of truancy in adolescents, with some adolescents skipping school because they are too tired to get up early and sit through seven to eight hours of class.
Research from the University of Minnesota indicates that sleep deprivation has a direct impact on school dropout rates. Kyla Wahlstrom has been researching the need for later school start times since 1996. Her team studied the effects of later school start times on two Minnesota school districts that decided to shift high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. Administrators based this decision on the fact that teens are naturally sleepy very early in the morning, with many teens unable to get out of sleep mode until at least 8:00 a.m. In addition to less depression and higher grades, both districts reported significantly lower dropout rates after they implemented later class start times. Although parents were initially concerned about how the late start times would affect bus schedules and other logistical issues, 92 percent of those surveyed indicated that they preferred the later start times.
Until more school administrators take action on this important issue, parents and teens should work together to prevent sleep deprivation. Parents should encourage teens to go to bed early so that they get at least eight hours of sleep. Whenever possible, parents should also avoid scheduling early morning appointments for their teens. Teens should practice a nightly routine that helps them relax and get ready for sleep. Avoiding video games, loud music and computer usage for at least one hour before bedtime allows the mind to relax. Sticking to the same sleep routine all week is very important. Going to bed at 10:00 p.m. on weeknights and 1:00 a.m. on weekends will disrupt the routine and undo all of the hard work a teen has put into battling sleep deprivation.