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Dennis Rosen M.D.

Should High School Start at 11 AM?

Why are teenagers so chronically sleep deprived?

According to a report in the British Newspaper "The Guardian" from 3/08/2009, Dr. Paul Kelley, headmaster of Monkseaton Community High School in North Tyneside, England, has proposed sweeping changes in the timetable at his institution, which would entail having classes start at 11 AM, instead of the more usual 9 AM. This comes following testing conducted by Dr. Russell Foster, an Oxford professor of neuroscience, at the school, which demonstrated an improvement in the students' memory when they were tested at 2 PM as compared to at 9 AM. Dr. Kelley has asked the school's governors to approve the plan and begin implementing it prior to the opening of the new school building in September 2009.

Teenagers are notorious for staying up late, and for not getting enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation's "Sleep in America" poll from 2006 showed that most teenagers do not get enough sleep on school nights (the age appropriate sleep requirement for teenagers is around 9 ¼ hours/night). 62% of the high school students polled received fewer than 8 hours/night, and an additional 25% received between 8-9 hours/night. 28% of high school students reported falling asleep in school at least once a week.

Why do teenagers stay up so late, and why are they so chronically sleep deprived? First of all, they have lots and lots to do, including homework, sports, hanging out with friends, TV, texting, chatting, internet, and often find it very difficult to shut everything down and out for the night. They also drink a lot of caffeine, with 75% reporting that they consumed at least one caffeinated beverage daily. Developmentally, they become more independent, and less inclined to do precisely as they are told by their parents. The body's internal circadian clock shifts tends to drift more in this age group than in others, with the signal to fall asleep occurring slightly later each day. Finally, the pressure to fall asleep as a function of the degree of sleep deprivation decreases during adolescence and this is thought to be because of physical changes in the brain during this period.

So should all high school students start classes at 11 AM? Dr. Kelley certainly thinks so. Clearly making this kind of change in school schedules would have profound effects not only upon the kids themselves, but also upon their teachers and parents as well, which would likely not be unanimously well received.

Still, it is ironic that in many states, school starts earlier in the day as the child gets older, with high school often starting before middle school, which in turn starts earlier than elementary school. I think that this is a topic which would benefit from involvement at all levels (school, district, state and national), in order to give our children a better environment in which to learn, one that is more suited to their specific developmental needs.




Dennis Rosen, M.D.

Help your child get a great night's sleep with:

Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids (a Harvard Medical School Guide)