Dr. Reut Gruber is the director of the Attention Behaviour and Sleep Lab at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine.
As we look for ways to reduce the number of interactions between students in schools so that physical distancing is feasible, there is an obvious solution: Follow teens’ delayed sleep biology.
Maturational changes in puberty result in adolescents shifting to a much later bedtime compared with children and adults; wake and sleep times occur approximately two hours later. By adjusting schedules to better accommodate teenagers we can reduce the total number of students attending school at one time, while improving their sleep and therefore their physical and mental health.
Many secondary schools will be using a hybrid model that blends in-person and remote teaching. This creates a lot of flexibility. Schools can build their schedules so that remote teaching begins first, at the regular time or a bit later. This would allow students to sleep in a bit longer because they do not have to commute during rush hour.
Schools that are continuing with in-person teaching only can consider staggering arrival times. Younger students can maintain a regular or slightly delayed start time, with older teens starting and finishing later (this is okay in part because there are few extra-curricular activities right now). Each school can determine how to implement the idea based on their circumstances, including average student commute time and any other relevant consideration. If they have to choose a universal start time, it is better to go with a later one, which would most likely benefit teachers as well because many of them, too, are sleep deprived and stressed.
As decades of research have shown, during our “old normal” teens were forced to learn much earlier in the day than their brains are primed to accommodate. They were also forced to go to bed before their brains and bodies were ready to transition to sleep. This is why 60 per cent reported feeling tired in the morning; 42 per cent reported having trouble falling asleep and almost a third weren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep. Indeed, educators often observe that older students are not fully awake through the first hours of school.
Parents, teachers and researchers alike can tell you: Well-rested adolescents are less irritable. They are better able to self-regulate and experience improved moods – which means they are more prepared to cope with stressors such as physical distancing, wearing masks and continued uncertainty. Healthy sleep promotes a strong immune system, making it easier for teens to fight off infections. And kids who’ve slept well perform better at school.
Conversely, sleep deprivation impairs teens’ health, alters immune responses, impairs learning and academic performance, and is associated with high levels of depression, inattention and drug use. This makes teenagers physically and emotionally vulnerable to stress, and at higher risk of suicide. We need to prevent that, and COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to do so.
A recent study my colleagues and I conducted in Quebec between the end of April and early June showed that adolescents’ sleep during the pandemic improved. School closures and the transition to remote learning removed normally imposed rise times, creating conditions for a natural experiment that allowed teens to self-select their sleep schedules.
The study’s participants reported that they went to bed and woke up two hours later than during regular school time. This helped them to fall asleep faster and sleep longer and better; they did not feel as tired during the day. As one teen said: “It’s been helping me fall asleep quicker. So it’s been getting better ever since we stopped going to school.” Other students have noted that although they’re going to bed later, they’re waking later and are well-rested.
The COVID-19 response caused many negative societal changes, but this unique opportunity to better align school start times with the delayed circadian biology of adolescents could be a silver lining.
It is an affordable and efficient way to increase teens’ resilience in the face of the challenges and stress caused by the pandemic, while also providing students the opportunity to attend less crowded schools with reduced risk of virus transmission.
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