Sleepy teens need later school start times: sleep expert

With school boards shifting to accommodate a COVID-safe education, many teenage students are being moved into cohorts, with a hybrid blend of in-person and distance learning.

While students may need some time to adjust from the extended summer off classes, a recent sleep study says the ‘new normal’ for students should include a later school start.

The study, conducted in Montreal earlier this year, showed that teenagers experienced an improved sleep schedule during the pandemic – with school closures and a transition to electronic learning leading to lessened commutes and later wake times.

According to the study, teenage participants who went to bed and woke up two hours later than their usual school start times reported better sleep, and increased mood throughout the day.

Reut Gruber is an Associate Professor in Psychiatry with McGill University, and the Director of the Attention, Behaviour and Sleep Laboratory with the Douglas Research Centre.

As a contributor to the study, she said current high-school schedules ignore what we already know about teenage biology.

“What happens when puberty kicks in is our circadian clock or rhythm (…) is becoming delayed,” Gruber said, “It’s a biological shift – and means that teenagers are actually not really able to fall asleep earlier like they used to before they started puberty.”

“Their brain is developing almost as fast as when they were babies (…) they need X number of hours; we have to allow them to start a bit later so they don’t always have to fight their biology.”

According to Gruber, teenage students pay a price based on the earlier hours seen in the “old normal” of their education.

She said when students don’t get the sleep they need their mood is affected, and they’re not able to focus in the same capacity that they would be able to if they were following their natural rhythm.

She added students who can more closely follow their body’s delayed sleep clock may be less irritable, and ultimately, more prepared to cope with the stressors of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s an ongoing, active research – and there’s so many factors,” Gruber said, “If we wanted to make it perfect, then of course you still have individual differences; it’s not that all teens are exactly the same.”

When it comes to implementing this later start in the school day, Gruber acknowledges that there would likely be some reluctance.

She said logistical hurdles exist that would make a mutually agreed-upon start time difficult to establish – such as bus schedules, extra curricular activities and commutes.

She also pointed out a lot of parents simply believe teenagers just need to pull it together.

“A lot of people that are not really familiar with this research… just think this whole thing is not a real thing – ‘they’re lazy, they need to straighten up and do what they need to do,'” Gruber said, “I think there’s a little bit of a gap in understanding that it’s biology.”

“Of course, we want to set boundaries and expectations, but we can’t just deny the facts and biology”.