Why Later School Start Times Are the Future for Teenagers

Astonishment. That’s the emotion registering on the face of many of the educators witnessing Spanish neuroscientist Esther Alberca’s presentation on sleep concerning a teenager’s brain. Many knew that sleep changed once kids reached their teen years, but the shower of scientific findings and the impact that it makes on education was something new. Sleep remains a bastion of unknown knowledge for many scientists, but, in recent years, researchers have shown how big of a tool sleep is for the human brain, and especially for learning.

Why Starting School an Hour Later Is the Future for Teenagers

There’s no secret on the changes that the brain has during development. Since we are born, the connections and structures in the brain go through constant changes, many of them with the way the brain interacts with our environment and our biology. Many scientists have unlocked the incredible powers of the brain during childhood. The wide-open possibilities for new connections, the plasticity of the child brain and the fantastic development of its functions are heavily studied. But what about the teenage brain?

Scientists know the basic facts on the teenage brain. Hormones cause wild reorganization of the brain and in the pre-frontal cortex, specifically. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a brain area specializing in controlling impulses) is still underdeveloped, and the social priorities of the teenager change, especially the sense of self. The sleep cycle of teenagers also gets reorganized.

Just how significant is the shift in sleep patterns in the teenager?

The big difference between teens and children is the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is also known as our biological clock. It controls everything regarding eating, body temperature, emotions, sleep and active hours when we are awake. The circadian rhythm is in all living things, even in plants, and during its cycle, the brain releases a vital hormone known as melatonin. The melatonin hormone is the key player in our sleep. It signals the brain that it is time to sleep, and the brain then enters in a whole new activity that helps us for the next day. As Berkley neuroscientist Matthew Walker explains, “sleep reforms the body’s metabolic state by fine-tuning the balance of insulin and circulating glucose.”

In teenagers, the circadian rhythm changes drastically. Teenagers, who before in their childhood could wake up at 5:30 a.m. with no problem, now have a hard time waking up at that same hour. Teenagers become night owls, and their brain starts the descent into sleep in later hours of the night and begins waking up time later in the morning. Moreover, their prefrontal cortex – as Walker describes in his influential book Why We Sleep – is offline when these new night owls start the day early. The problem becomes apparent for teenagers that must go to school early in the morning. Their learning is impaired because their brain is still in sleep mode!

Reforming School Time

Mariale Hardiman, a neuro-educator from Johns Hopkins University, proposed that, because of the changes in the circadian rhythm in teens, schools should start at a later hour. Alberca, who works with the phenomenon of sleep in Spain, also proposed a later time for school. Walker in his book describes the situation further:

“Previously, we noted that the circadian rhythm of teenagers shifts forward dramatically by one to three hours. So really the question I should ask you, if your an adult, is this: Could you concentrate and learn anything after having forcefully been woken up at 3:15 a.m., day after day after day? Would you be in a cheerful mood? Would you find it easy to get along with your coworkers and conduct yourself with grace, tolerance, respect, and a pleasant demeanor? Of course not. Why, then, do we ask this of the millions of teenagers and children in industrialized nations?”

The task of starting school later so that teenagers can have a productive day is difficult, but not impossible. Various projects have been proposed, and the big one is called Start School Later. The organizers of Start School Later suggested that since teenagers’ brains are waking up around 8:00 a.m., schools should start at a later hour.

A school in Minnesota –  also described in Walker’s book – started school at 8:40 a.m., instead of 7:30 a.m., and a sudden rise in the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) scores were observed. In a school in Wyoming, school time started at 7:35, but after changing it to 8:55 a.m., traffic accidents were reduced to 70 percent.

Last Word on Teenagers and a Later School Time

It’s because of these and other results that starting school at a later hour is the future of education. Once the brain has woken up, real learning can begin. Moreover, young adults entering school at a later hour will have a lower risk of having anxiety, depression, stress and even traits of schizophrenia. Many educators focus on early life learning, but now, that attention must be turned to the severe effects that early school time is having on our young adults. With the promise of less-depressed, more-productive and less harming-to-the-public teenagers, the prospect of starting school at a later hour looks to be the future.

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