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Sleep and school start times

Since moving back to the UK I’ve been living in a village.  It’s stating the obvious, I think, to say that village life is very different from living in Mumbai, a city of 22 million people.  For me one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is in the way I sleep.  During my 6 years in India I don’t think I slept very well.  For the first 3 years I lived in an extremely noisy neighbourhood, and even when the people were not noisy there was always the street dogs that would fight at night and keep me awake.  As well as this I found it was often quite light at night – and of course there was the very early morning alarm clock that got me up for work – my start time was 7.40 am.

Now that I’m not working in a school my sleep is much more under my control.  I go to bed when I feel tired, and I wake up without an alarm.  In addition it is very dark and very quiet.  My body and general feeling of wellbeing has certainly improved with better quality sleep, and it’s got me thinking about how sleep, or a lack of it, impacts our students – and what we can do about it.

I was recently reading that more than 80% of high schools in the USA start before 8.15 am – and in fact almost 50% of those start before 7.20 am (which was actually my start time when I worked in Thailand).  Because many students get the bus to school, pick ups from home can start as early as 5.45 am, meaning that many students are getting up at around 5.15 am, five days a week for years on end, resulting in chronic sleep deprivation for most adolescents, and associated mental health issues that include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and suicide.   Digging a little deeper into this, the real problem seems to be a lack of REM sleep (the sleep we experience in the final hours of our sleep) that is responsible for our stable or unstable mental states.  While 100 years ago students woke up without an alarm clock for a school that started at 9 am, now almost no-one does.

Here’s the interesting thing:  studies have shown that no matter what age, the longer a child sleeps the more intellectual gifted they are (Genetic Studies of Genius, Terman).  It seems that Terman believed that the movement towards an earlier and earlier school start is damaging the intellectual growth of students.  Ironically, as the USA pushes school start times earlier and earlier, in Europe the opposite has happened.

Japanese studies have also linked sleep to memory – showing that delaying school start times can be transformative.  In the USA a test was done in Edina, Minnesota when school start times were shifted an hour later (to 8.30 from 7.25).  Before the shift, SAT average scores were 605.  After the shift, these rose to 761.  Similar results were observed for Math SAT scores: from 683 to 739.  These studies indicate that allowing students more sleep is beneficial.

These results are even more extreme when considering socio-economic status.  Low income families are less likely to be taken to school in a car (often because many of these parents need to get themselves to work) and therefore are more likely to travel on a school bus.  For those children they have to wake up earlier than those driven by their parents, and so disadvantaged children become more disadvantaged as they routinely obtain less sleep than children from more affluent families.

Another interesting by-product of a later school start time is a later finishing time.  This is also seen as beneficial as it protects teenagers from the “danger window” of 3.00 – 6.00 pm when schools have finished but parents have not yet returned home – an unsupervised and vulnerable period of time for involvement in crime and alcohol abuse.  A later school start time reduces this window and therefore also reduces the potential for these outcomes.

Here’s another interesting study:  In Minnesota when school times were pushed from a 7.30 start to an 8.00 am start, there was a 60% reduction in traffic accidents in drivers aged 16 – 18.  In Wyoming a shift in start times from 7.35 to 8.55 am resulted in a 70% reduction in traffic accidents in 16 – 18 year old drivers.

There are also links between sleep deficiency and ADHD, in fact many of the symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of ADHD are exactly those caused by a lack of sleep.  Unfortunately, drugs such as Ritalin which are prescribed for ADHD are drugs that prevent sleep – which may exacerbate the issue.

Now here’s my question (since this is a blog about technology and education):  is technology robbing us of sleep – or can technology help us to track our sleep and then intervene so that we get more benefit from sleep, and then less of a negative impact on our brain’s ability to study.  Let’s see if I can answer that question in my next blog post.

All studies mentioned in this post are from the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley Flickr via Compfight cc

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