Over the last few years there has been a growing level of noise about shifting school start time for teenagers in high schools. The argument is that teenagers’ body clocks are running on different time and that, to acknowledge that, we shouldn’t ask them to get up so early in the morning and school should start later.
I’ve read a lot on this and, my son for one would hate to hear me say it – I never really bought it. I remain open to be convinced, but as of now I just don’t believe the case has been made strongly enough.
Even before getting in to the science and the issues about children and their body rhythms there are, to my mind, some very obvious practical issues. In almost any city in the world, the one good piece of news with early school starts is that the commute time for children is reduced by the fact that they’re on the road to school before the worst of the traffic. As the early hours of the morning move forward, every 10 minutes later leaving home requires an extra 5 minutes on the road. So, you finish up with situations where a 45 minute shift in school start time only sees students leave school 20 minutes later than they were before. The rest of the time is ‘lost’ on the road in heavier traffic.
In addition, many families have their time routines dictated by the time parents need to leave for work. So, again, shifting the school start time may have relatively little impact for the child. practically, the family may still need the child to get up at about the same time.
Then, we come to all the reasons why this was being suggested in the first place.
When I was growing up, there was a continual game going on between me and my sisters and our parents. The object of the game from our perspective was to use every kind of subterfuge or time-wasting excuse to stay up. My son did exactly the same thing from an early age. I think it’s driven by all sorts of things. FOMO – fear of missing out is one part. In addition, there was television and that always seemed to offer the most interesting and tempting fare just after the allotted time for going to bed.
For children today two significant things have happened. Firstly, the temptations of media have multiplied exponentially. So much so that the TV may hold relatively little interest compared with the PS4, social networking etc. Secondly, ‘discipline’ and rules are not as cut and dried as they were in my time, especially with teenagers. Parents find they have to ‘pick their battlegrounds’ with their oh so sensitive teens. Peer pressure says that everyone else stays up to whatever time they want, so attempts by parents to exert any kind of rules are seen as draconian and completely unreasonable. Thus, masses of research that shows that like most adults, teenagers are sleeping less now than in the past.
So, if this becomes habitual, should we really be surprised that they can’t get up in the morning, or that their body clocks accept this as normal?
There’s another problem that started, I think, with my generation and has only got worse since – the laying in at weekends. This is the idea that you can get yourself increasingly sleep deprived all week, and then make up the deficit by staying in bed late at weekends. All my understanding today of the evidence is that this is disastrous – a terrible thing to do and highly detrimental to the body clock and to many other aspects of effective functioning.
I have to acknowledge that I picked up this particular bad habit in my younger years and, at times, it’s been hard to escape from. So, I can quite understand how children today are even more quickly sliding in to the kinds of habits that don’t support them to be at their best in the morning.
The evidence is starting to come out, more and more, that this was a naive and simplistic response to a problem that is really, more than anything else an issue of self-discipline, good habits and persistence in the face of temptations. Here’s a recent article;
My son recently had a change of travel arrangements to school. it meant he leaves the house around 20 minutes later than he used to. For the first couple of months, this was great news and he was fresher, on time and I didn’t have to chase him out of bed in the morning. However, over time, even though i encouraged him to stick to the previous bed time, he started to push the limits on the bed time. The result – probably as much struggle to get up on time for the later time as for the earlier time. The benefit of those 20 minutes has already gone.
As I said before, I’m still open to being convinced that there is a scientific basis to this – one that doesn’t simply reflect that adjusted sleep habits have their own outcomes. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on undoing the bad habits I’ve acquired regarding sleep over so many years. Maybe, ultimately, setting good example is the best thing I can do for my own child.