Get Some Sleep!

For exasperated parents of sleep-deprived teenagers everywhere, I bring tidings of great joy—or, anyway, some cause for hope, or a cause you might want to embrace.  

An article appearing in the current edition of Psychiatric News (the bi-weekly newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association) reports that the Fairfax County, Virginia school district--the nation’s 11th-largest—is hoping to improve teen classroom performance, mental and physical health, and driving safety by delaying the morning start time of schools in the district (

This development is based on an enormous body of research evidence about adolescent brain development and circadian rhythms, much of which has been around for decades: your teenager who won’t go to sleep before 11 p.m., or even midnight, isn’t being defiant—her brain isn’t ready to nod off, and is probably still humming like a radiator. And yet she needs as much sleep as—or more than—she did as an 8-year-old.

The article quotes Judith Owens, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at George Washington University and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Adolescent Sleep Working Group, saying that most adolescents need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep for optimum alertness and well-being. And it cites the Academy’s policy statement on the subject (published in the journal Pediatrics, in September 2014; which argues that few teenagers get that much sleep because school start times are not in sync with their adolescent biological clocks. “The average teenager in today’s society has difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m. and is best suited to wake at 8 a.m. or later,” according to the Academy, which urges the nation’s middle and high schools to start classes at 8:30 a.m. or later—30 to 60 minutes later than most do now. Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says he hopes that the Fairfax County experiment becomes a national trend.

I can think of some objections to this. Maybe teenagers would just stay up even later anyway (Dr. Owens refutes this in the Psych News article). The habits of contemporary teenagers—late-night texting with friends and the ubiquitous smart phone—are a hindrance to sleep, and to performance, entirely apart from when the day begins. And then there is the characteristic daytime sleepy insouciance of teenagers under any circumstances —some teenagers, anyway. (A world class underachiever, I took a pretty regular nap in the back row of a Speech and Rhetoric class at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1977, a class that happened to follow immediately on the heels of lunch.)

But it strikes me that today, sleep deprivation may most adversely affect those upwardly striving young people who don’t want to blow off their classes, who want to do well, and who are locked in a competition—for grades, for college acceptance—that has gotten crazily, not to say un-healthily, over-stressful.

Those teenagers are expected, and expect themselves, to take AP and honors level classes, play a sport and/or a musical instrument, engage in an after-school club, think about college, learn to drive a car and drive it safely, enjoy a social life (which, as we know, can be a drama full of thunder and lightning, requiring a full-time commitment all its own) and at the same time behave with some minor degree of courtesy and civility toward the parents who have shepherded them this far. All this—while operating on a minimum of sleep and mental alertness that we would find alarming and hazardous in, say, an airline pilot.

The Psych News articles notes that controversy around the issue of school start-time in Fairfax County “roiled the system for years” before action was taken. I believe it—I think I started hearing this meme years before the problem captured my attention as the parent of a teenager. And it would not surprise me if the issue has been raised in Lakewood before—so apologies if I am telling old news. Regarding education and educational policy I’ve been pleased to be a bystander, not probably as involved as I should be but generally confident and grateful that everyone is doing the best they can. And I have nothing but good things to say about Lakewood public schools, based on my experience with a student in that system. But I have the strong impression that enacting big reforms in the way schools are run—even obviously necessary reforms with enormous evidence for their necessity—requires buy-in from so many stakeholders whose interests are not always in harmony that it takes something approaching an act of God to get something to happen. So perhaps getting a school district to bump back its starting time by 30 minutes or an hour would demand a supernatural event.

But for what it’s worth, the evidence is in, and has been for a long time. Our young people would think better, learn better, and achieve more if the school day were structured in accordance with the way teenagers’ brains and central nervous systems actually operate. Maybe the example set by Fairfax County schools will be the start of something good.

Mark Moran

14-year long Lakewood resident, accidentally and temporarily displaced last year.

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Volume 11, Issue 9, Posted 6:10 PM, 04.14.2015