Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Classroom Practice - Why Sleeping in Could Improve Teens' Results: Pedagogy

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Classroom Practice - Why Sleeping in Could Improve Teens' Results: Pedagogy

Article excerpt

Allowing adolescents to sleep for longer and start school later may have positive effects on learning and attainment, research suggests.

Teenagers' struggle with early mornings is well documented, yet it has been ignored by the majority of schools, which have put the adolescent aversion to sunrise down to laziness and have resisted calls for later school start times. A growing weight of research, however, is making this lack of empathy increasingly problematic. Forcing teenagers to attend school at an hour before their minds and bodies are ready, academics say, may be damaging their health and grades.

The counter-arguments to the "teenagers are just lazy" theory began in the 1990s. From 1993 onwards, Dr Mary Carskadon led a team of researchers from Brown University on Rhode Island, US. They discovered a "phase shift" in the sleep patterns of teenagers, a finding that was confirmed in 2000.

This shift occurs during puberty and consists of a delay in the circadian clock, which controls the body's natural 24-hour cycle. In short, Carskadon found that teenagers were biologically predisposed to stay up later and sleep for longer in the mornings. It is a finding that has been built upon by other researchers, such as Professor Steven Lockley of Harvard Medical School in the US, who explains that asking a teenager to rise before 7am "might be like asking me to wake at 4am. Obviously I would be tired, irritable and not in a good state to learn."

It is not just learning that is endangered when students are forced from their beds. According to Lockley, this issue extends beyond academic achievement. He refers to a "systematic reduction in sleep" caused by the lack of coordination between teenage body clocks and school start times. This could lead ultimately, he says, to a public health crisis. "Sleep disruption is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, psychiatric disorders and some cancers," he explains.

Research into the issue is continuing throughout Europe, Canada and Australia. But it is in the US that work in this area is most advanced. With some US high schools starting as early as 7am, school buses can arrive at children's homes at 5.45am. It is unsurprising, then, that it is here that the debate is most vociferous. Indeed, some schools in the US switched to later start times as soon as Carskadon's team published its first findings.

Those schools added important data to the argument in favour of later start times. From 1996, Dr Kyla Wahlstrom, of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, observed students from two Minnesota school districts for a three-year period. After the switch to later start times, better attendance, lower drop-out rates and improved performance were recorded.

Data collected in 1998, meanwhile, when a school district in Fayette County, Kentucky, delayed its start time by an hour, showed a decrease in the vehicle collision rate among 16- to 18-year-old drivers.

These positive results led to other US schools making the switch, and similar changes were made in Australia and the UK.

A 10am start was introduced for 800 students at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, UK, in 2009. It was instigated and observed by Russell Foster, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. …

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