It is not a task for the faint of heart, especially in the predawn darkness. You creep quietly into the beast's den, hoping to rouse it without too much trouble, skirting the phones and remotes and chargers by the bed. You prod the beast gently, trying to ignore the overwhelming fug of gym sock and the muffled groan, "Five more minutes!"
And you may wonder, as many parents of teenagers do, watching their glazed-eyed offspring robotically chewing breakfast, why they couldn't have slept for another hour. Why, in defiance of all that is known about the adolescent brain, does high school start so early?
It's a question that's being asked all over the world, especially in places where school systems are designed less for optimal learning and more for convenience, extracurricular activities or because things have just always been that way. In South Korea, a country so academically overheated that kids take extra classes at night and bring pillows to sleep at school by day, educators are considering delaying morning classes till 9 a.m. In England, more than 30,000 high school students have been invited to start more than an hour later than usual, at 10 a.m., in a four-year experiment to see how this might affect academic performance.
We'll have to wait and see, but at this point, the evidence around later bell times is pretty persuasive. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for a start time of no earlier than 8:30 for high school and middle school students. One of its members, Dr. Judith Owens, said in a policy statement, "The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life." A 2011 study from the University of California at Davis found that students who started later showed marked improvement not just during the morning, but all through the day's lessons.
Astonishingly, 40 per cent of American teenagers begin their school days before 8 a.m. For Canadian teens, the day generally begins between 8 a.m. and 9. If you factor in commutes (especially in rural communities), preschool sports practices and other activities, you're looking at kids who get up with the roosters. And then go to bed with the owls.
Ah, but shouldn't they just go to bed earlier? Turn off their devices, shut down their games, slap their laptops shut? The problem is, adolescent brains function differently from children's and adults' in terms of sleep rhythms: The chemicals that regulate sleep are released at different times, causing them to go to bed and rise later. If you're glaring at your dozy teen in the morning, take comfort: As with most things at that age, it's the hormones' fault.
Teenagers should get at least nine hours of sleep a night, but they average fewer than seven, according to the U.S. National Sleep Foundation. The consequences are not just tail-dragging during the day, either: Sleep isn't a void filled with dreams of dancing elephants, but a crucial time for processing and storing new knowledge, as New York Times science correspondent Benedict Carey writes in his new book, How We Learn. Problems that were knotty during the day become untangled at night, he explains. "The preponderance of evidence to date finds that sleep improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before" – and in that way, he writes, "sleep is learning."
There are plenty of reasons why schools don't start earlier – it would be a massive disruption in scheduling, commuting and sports practice – but are any of them really valid, in the long run? Some schools in Canada and the United States are experimenting with later start times.
One of those pushing the envelope is Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute in Toronto, which for five years has allowed kids to roll in at 10 a.m. Two years after the late start began, the Toronto District School Board reported on the results of the experiment, which were largely positive. Students showed some academic improvement in English and mathematics, although no increase in science grades. Probably more important, kids reported getting a half-hour more sleep every night, and said it was easier to get to school in the morning. Teachers found that "students were much more alert and able to participate in class."
There is a lesson to be learned here, or a teachable moment, or some other cliché from the educational pile. Maybe we'll follow up on it, as soon as we've winched our teenagers from bed.