Sunday, April 20, 2014
Let's learn about how our students really learn -- and sleep!
Studies continue to show that teenagers learn better later in the morning, prompting many school districts across the nation to reconsider their school start and bell times. Students in my county were recently given a survey that asked such questions, as the county is currently considering a new bell schedule that would extend the elementary day by 10 minutes, begin the middle school day 10 minutes earlier, and begin the high school day 10 minutes later. It's an idea that seems to have a lot of potential benefit -- and traction -- for our students and schools. Read on...
April 2014 | Volume 56 | Number 4
Research shows that sleep affects health, happiness, and cognitive functioning—especially among teens. Schools are taking note, introducing later start times and flexible scheduling to ensure students are well-rested and ready to learn.
Hitting the snooze button. Crawling into bed at night fully dressed for the next day. Skipping breakfast then gulping down huge cups of coffee. Groggy teens everywhere are doing what they can to buy a few extra minutes of coveted sleep. But when it comes to biology, there's no one-upping the adolescent body.
During puberty, changes in the circadian rhythm shift teens' sleep-wake schedule. Research led by Brown University professor Mary Carskadon suggests that melatonin is released in the adolescent brain later at night, making it difficult for teens to go to bed early and be alert first thing in the morning.
And with schools often starting before dawn, the window of sleep is narrow. According to the CDC's 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 70 percent of high school students are sleep-deprived. Studies have found that sleepy teens are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents and experience poor concentration, depression, anxiety, moodiness, and even obesity.
Sleep loss also influences learning and memory. The brain organizes information during sleep, says Helene Emsellem, medical director of The Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders and board member for the National Sleep Foundation. "You gather facts during the day and put them in your short-term memory. It's when you go to sleep that your brain reviews that information, sorts it, decides what to store, and makes it retrievable." Without sleep, learning and retaining new tasks is increasingly difficult.
Sleep advocates have long argued the benefits of aligning school start times with teens' biological clocks. A 2011 report from the Brookings Institute suggests that early start times set disadvantaged students back just as much as ineffective teachers, and starting middle and high schools at 9:00 a.m. could increase student achievement.
The strategy worked for the Edina and Minneapolis public schools, two of the first districts to change bell times. According to University of Minnesota researcher Kyla Wahlstrom, when students showed up to school at 8:30 a.m. or later, they were more likely to graduate and reported less depression and higher grades.
Results like those in Minnesota are nudging politicians to get involved. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has had legislation in Congress every year since 1998 advocating for later start times, and several states are currently debating the issue. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted in August that it is "common sense" to "let teens sleep more, [and] start school later."
Still, the impetus to change is slow. A 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 43 percent of U.S. high schools start before 8:00 a.m. and 10 percent start before 7:30 a.m. To get the recommended 8.5–9.25 hours of sleep and make an early bus, teens would have to be in bed far earlier than their biological clocks prefer.
Skeptics of later start times often point to the perceived costs and logistical challenges, such as transportation, sports and extracurricular scheduling, and child care.
Terra Ziporyn Snider, executive director of the national coalition Start School Later, acknowledges that although most school administrators support pushing back start times, the issue is a "political hot potato." Resistance often comes from the community and a fear of change more than anything else, she believes.
For many districts that have already changed start times, "all the fears about all the terrible things that are going to happen have proven to be false," says Snider. "Communities tend to adjust to school hours and not vice versa."
Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., managed to cut costs and delay start times by switching from a four-tier to a three-tier transportation system. The district's high schools now begin at 7:45 a.m., a small but significant change from the earliest start time of 7:05 a.m.
James Bailey, principal of Discovery Canyon Campus High School, says that although no data have come in yet, the change has been palpable. Before, "I'd get a few nods and a yawn" when greeting students at the school's entrance each morning, says Bailey. But now, "they actually say good morning and chat with me."
The process took the 25,000-student district about a year to complete. Bailey says the key to the smooth transition was the upfront work by the superintendent and director of transportation to consolidate routes with minor disruptions to families and to anticipate the what-ifs that would be inevitably raised by stakeholders.
In some districts, students and parents are leading the charge. In Columbia Public Schools in Missouri, a school board proposal would have made high schools start a half-hour earlier. But Jilly Dos Santos, a student at Rock Bridge High School, mobilized a social media campaign to stop the change.
Even at 7:50 a.m., students were frequently falling sleep in class, says Dos Santos. "If we watched a documentary or a movie, it was nap time."
The district eventually moved from a two-tier to a three-tier transportation system but swapped its start times. Middle schools and some elementary schools now begin at 7:30 a.m., while the remaining elementary schools start at 8:20 a.m. and high schools start at 9:00 a.m.
Jolene Yoakum, assistant superintendent for secondary education, says the district also began offering "zero-hour" courses for students who want an earlier dismissal. "All kids need to have different pathways to get where they need," says Yoakum.
Although Columbia and other districts are finding ways to accommodate older students, Emsellem calls for an across-the-board solution. "Simply switching elementary and high school start times doesn't work because then you have little kids standing at bus stops in the dark," she says. "You end up punishing one group to solve a problem for another."
Start School Later recommends that no schools begin before 8:00 a.m. and that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later.
Parents in Virginia have been trying to modify their county's bell schedule for more than a decade. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) came up with a feasible proposal in the 1990s, but took no action. Then in 2004, FCPS parents Phyllis Payne and Sandy Evans launched the advocacy group SLEEP in Fairfax to educate the community about the adverse effects of its 7:20 a.m. start times.
Throughout the course of SLEEP's work, Payne has received calls from frantic parents who have been taken to truancy court because their children were missing too many mornings, and she's heard from parents who dropped out as teens because they "could not function with those hours."
With growing consensus, FCPS passed a resolution in 2012 to start high schools after 8:00 a.m. and contracted a team from Children's National Medical Center to draft a manageable and cost-effective proposal. FCPS has a four-tier transportation system that buses more than 110,000 students each day on 6,500 separate routes, and the earliest bus picks students up at 5:45 a.m.
This year, FCPS began allowing some high school seniors to drop early classes and other high school students to swap an early class for a study hall or dual-enrollment or online course. "It's a helpful interim stop-gap measure," says Payne, "but it doesn't help every kid."
Though there is no specific plan on the table, Payne is optimistic. Adds Emsellem, "If Fairfax County can figure out a budget-neutral way to change the bus schedule, then every district can do it."
For the 43 percent of U.S. high schools that start in the 7:00 a.m. hour, the issue won't be resolved immediately. That leaves plenty of teachers desperate to find a solution to conquering what Emsellem calls the "zoned state."
Payne, who is also a health educator, admits that teachers will try anything to battle first-period grogginess. Some toss beach balls around the room or have students work in groups and participate in discussions. Others keep coffee pots on hand or have students bring in breakfast. One school rolls breakfast carts into the hallway so students can purchase healthy snacks between passing periods.
But sometimes nothing seems to work. "It's very sad when teachers are feeling that helplessness. They're trying everything they can to keep kids engaged," says Payne. "But if a child is only getting six hours of sleep and they need nine, at some point their brains just shut off."
Emsellem says that reform begins with education. "Kids need to understand the biology of their own sleep and so do parents." Bring in sleep doctors, get the PTA involved, do anything to get the word out, she advises.
Snider and her group are banking on local, state, or federal regulations to relieve pressure on school administrators and give them support to take the issue to their communities. In the meantime, Snider says, "The vast majority of these efforts are going to fail for political reasons unless we as a culture start viewing sleep and school start times as public health issues."
"Running schools at safe and healthy times is just as much a given as removing asbestos or putting the heat on in February in Maine," adds Snider. "You don't talk about how much it costs or how it will affect extracurricular activities; you say of course you are going to run schools at safe and healthy times, and then you figure out how you are going to do it."
Sources: 1National Sleep Foundation, 2Eaton, et. al. (2010, April), 3National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.), 4Calamaro, Mason, & Ratcliffe (2009, June)
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.) Teens and sleep page. Retrieved Mary 17, 2014, fromhttp://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/teens-and-sleep.
Eaton, D.K., McKnight-Eily, L.R., Lowry, R., Perry, G.S., Presley-Cantrell, L., & Croft, J.B. (2010, April). Prevalence of insufficient, borderline, and optimal hours of sleep among high school students—United states, 2007. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 399–401. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.10.011
National Center for Education Statistics' Schools and Staffing Survey. (n.d.). Retrieved Mary 17, 2014, from http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass1112_201381_s1n.asp
Calamaro, C.J., Mason, T.B.A., & Ratcliffe, S.J. (2009, June). Adolescents living in the 24/7 lifestyle: Effects of caffeine and technology on sleep duration and daytime functioning. Pediatrics, 123(6), e1005–e1010. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-3641