Are teenage dreams the key to better health, wellbeing and performance?
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
It’s 7.30am and Tom is asleep.
After attempting to wake him with flashing lights, yelling and vigorous shaking, his parents opt for the last resort - the leg hair pull.
Tom lumbers from the depths of his teen sleep, mutters and totters unsteadily to the bathroom.
Ten minutes later he is in the car and heading for school, semi-catatonic and with his half-buttoned shirt bearing traces of hastily consumed Weetbix.
Tom is a high-achieving, self-motivated student who gets enough sleep and exercise, leaves all electronics out of the bedroom at night and has ambitions to be a school leader.
He just can’t get out of bed in the morning.
Research by Carskadon, Vieri, & Acebo shows that most adolescents experience a sleep phase delay so they naturally fall asleep and wake up later. They may feel wide awake at bedtime even when exhausted, which leads to sleep deprivation if they’re getting up early for school.
The consequences of sleep deprivation in teenagers can be serious - it hampers their ability to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, cope with stress and retain information.
According to the US National Sleep Foundation, those not getting enough sleep night after night are at risk of emotional and behavioural problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence.
They are more likely to be unhealthy, drink alcohol and smoke, make poor decisions, be drowsy when driving and perform worse in everything from academic subjects to sport.
And all because, like Tom, they function better after a lie-in.
Oxford University’s Dr Paul Kelley is currently undertaking the world's largest teen sleep trial because he says losing up to two hours of sleep per day is "a huge society issue".
He argues that school days should start at 10am and university at 11am to match the circadian rhythms of adolescents and young adults.
"All the evidence points to the same thing,” he told BBC News.
“There are no negative outcomes for moving later, no positive outcomes for moving earlier."
His arguments are backed by the Seattle School Board, which has introduced later start times for all high schoolers in an effort to fit adolescents’ school hours around their body clocks.
And by the National Sleep Foundation, which is supporting a bid for legislation in the US Parliament to address the relationship between school start times and adolescent wellbeing, health and performance.
But Richard Walker, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Sydney, sees a raft of problems with prioritising Australian adolescents’ sleep requirements ahead of community needs.
“If it’s beneficial for adolescents to start school at a different time, what about teachers and other people who work in schools?” he said.
“It seems to me that adolescents should be going to bed earlier than they do and they shouldn’t be using devices prior to going to bed.
“Evidence show that the best time to go to sleep is sometime between 10.30 and 11.30 at night, certainly before 12 o’clock. The evidence also shows that there are a lot of people within our community suffering from a sleep deficit.
“I think there are a whole load of perspectives on this that need to be taken into account - it’s not just an issue of adolescence.”
He argues that later start times might actually be disadvantageous to those students who operate best in the morning.
“Students are all quite different from a developmental point of view and from a learning point of view, so what suits one might not be appropriate for another.
“It’s long been argued that the best teaching and learning occurs early in the morning. In primary school, teachers teach the things they feel are most important in the mornings because kids learn best early in the day.
“This would mean schools having kids starting at different times depending on their age and that’s going to be pretty difficult.
“Teachers have their own lives - their work and life outside of work have to be taken into account.”
Despite the logistical issues, there are some Australian schools which are trialling later start times.
For six years now, South Australia’s Glenunga International High School has begun class at 10am on Wednesday - ostensibly to make time for staff professional development but also to give students a midweek sleep-in which ensures only two days in a row of early mornings.
Playford International College in South Australia introduced a 9.30am daily start in 2016 and while principal Rob Knight is still analysing the data on its effectiveness, he says the early signs are “very positive.”
“More students on site prior to the school day, improved punctuality and attendance to lessons and minimal behaviour issues occurring in lesson one” are among the benefits he has seen during the first few weeks of term.
Templestowe College in Melbourne allows students to choose their start times as part of a philosophy giving them greater control over their own education.
“In line with research around adolescent biorhythms and sleep habits, students have the option of an early or late start to the day, attending from 7.15am to 1.15pm, the traditional 8.50am to 3.30pm, or a late start from 10.30am to 5.15pm,” the school website states.
“At TC we encourage students to drive their learning and manage their own education,” Principal Peter Hutton says.
“When you take the risk and allow students to take control of their own learning, amazing things happen.”
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