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Teens more productive when school starts later

Teenagers. They're surly, lazy and moody — and it may not be entirely their fault.

It turns out that starting the school day just 30 minutes later in the morning might help teenagers be more productive and decrease the chances of them oversleeping on weekends, according to a group of sleep scientists.

"There are real, compelling reasons for schools to delay the start times," said Dr. Judith Owens, a sleep specialist with the Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, R.I. "It's not just teenagers being lazy and wanting to sleep late."

At the request of Eric Peterson, principal at St. George's School in Newport, R.I., Owens and her colleagues studied the results of delaying the start of the school day to 8:30 a.m., from 8 a.m. The 201 students in Grades 9 through 12, who are predominantly boarding students, also completed online surveys before and after the switch.

"They were significantly more satisfied and much more motivated," said Owens, whose daughter is a day student at the school. "Plus, they were less sleepy during the day and less depressed."

As children grow from middle childhood into adolescence, their sleep cycle — the hours at which they fall asleep and wake up — shifts by as much as two hours. So while a pre-adolescent child might fall asleep at 9 p.m., that child will be falling asleep at 11 p.m. by the time he or she reaches high school. The problem, Owens said, is that the sleep needs of an adolescent don't decrease, and remain at about nine hours per night.

When analyzing the online journals, Owens and her colleagues found that after two and a half months of starting the school day 30 minutes later, the number of students getting less than seven hours of sleep decreased by nearly 80 per cent, and those reporting at least eight hours of sleep increased to nearly 55 per cent from 16 per cent.

Additionally, the number of students who rated themselves as unhappy or depressed decreased by nearly 20 per cent, and the number who described themselves as feeling annoyed or irritated throughout the day decreased to almost 63 per cent from 84 per cent.

During the trial period, the school day wasn't extended. Instead, several minutes were shaved off from classes and assemblies, Owens said, adding that faculty and sports coaches were initially resistant to having students start later.

"They seemed skeptical that half an hour was really going to make a difference, and felt that it would potentially be disruptive to the academic and athletic schedule."

But during a vote held after the trial, students and faculty favoured the later start time and decided to make it permanent, beginning with the spring term.

"There was an overwhelming groundswell of support from virtually everyone," she said. "The students, the faculty, administrators, coaches. Nobody wanted to go back to the eight o'clock start.

"I know I'm biased, but mornings at my house were infinitely nicer with that extra half-hour."

The results, which Owens said add to a growing body of evidence suggesting later start times benefit students' emotional and physical health, have some education experts wondering why more schools don't adopt a later start time.

"The answer to that is actually very complicated," Kyla Wahlstrom, a director at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, wrote in an editorial about the study. "The time that a school starts is felt to be sacrosanct by those who have come to rely on it as a predictable part of their day and life."

Owen said an inadequate understanding of the science and biology behind the phenomenon is also a hurdle to implementing later start times in more high schools. "We don't trivialize any of the concerns," she said. "That's why data from trials need to be so compelling, if we want to get schools thinking about doing this seriously."

The study will be published this month in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

by Amy Minsky--The Vancouver Sun/Canwest News Service--07/06/10--

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Posted in: News on July 8, 2010 @ 8:18 PM

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