Dennis Rosen M.D.

Sleeping Angels

Should High School Start at 11 AM? (Part 3)

Adults and adolescent sleep patterns are quite different.

Posted Mar 12, 2009

Steve Livingston writes:

If many students are off-peak in their circadian rhythms early in the morning, and thus have a harder time learning, doesn't it also stand to reason that many first-period teachers are equally off their game? Adults aren't immune to being tired in the morning; in fact, it seems that they are more susceptible to the cognitive effects of sleep disruption.

If true, then the engagement/communication/patience of teachers and the attention paid/information retained by students are reduced -- a pedagogical 'double whammy'.

Many instructors complain about morning lectures full of sleepy students -- I did it myself when teaching introductory psychology at 8:30 AM as a grad student -- but rarely do we consider that we may be leading (failing?) by example.

Very good points, though in fairness, there are important differences between adults and adolescents. In adults the tendency for the internal circadian clock to drift ever later is not as strong as it is in teenagers. One also expects adults to have a better understanding of the consequences of staying up until 2 AM watching TV. It is also probable that those teaching at 7:30 tend to be more alert in the morning ("larks") than in the evening ("owls"). Broadly speaking, one can categorize people as larks or owls, with larks ready to bravely face the new day the moment the alarm goes off in the morning, while owls grumble in disbelief, roll over and bury their heads ever deeper into their pillows in a futile attempt to make it just GO AWAY so they can catch a few more hours of sleep. In the evening, the situation is reversed: larks yawn and zone out just as owls begin to really come into their own. While it is true that many people find themselves in situations they did not anticipate when first choosing their professions, one may assume that there is some degree of self-selection at work when it comes to making this choice (and sticking with it), and that most hard core owls soon realize that waking up at 6 AM five mornings a week in order to be ready for that 7:30 class just isn't for them.

The question remains whether we want the school day planned in such a way so that our children's learning is optimal, or so that it is merely acceptable, while making sure that parents are able to get to work on time. It should be recognized that these (and other) conflicting needs result in a compromise which is not always to the children's advantage.




Dennis Rosen, M.D.

Learn how to help your child get a great night’s sleep with my new book:

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids: Helping Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up With a Smile!