Sleep On It …

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is an early start to the school day, detrimental to learning?

A friend of mine is a high school teacher in the United States of Trump and he’s not happy. This is because his school district are introducing a later start time for students next year and his 8:00AM classes are threatened with extinction. He’s a self-confessed ‘morning person’ but none of students are.

The decision to move the timings of when school lessons start is no whim, but based on medical advice and extensive research.

Start after 8:30AM:

A couple of years ago, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a policy statement stating that “high schools and middle schools should start no earlier than 8:30AM because there was compelling scientific evidence, that early start times put students under physical and psychological stress correlated to emotional problems, obesity, sports injuries and other health risks”.

Deficient sleep in teenagers is also associated with health risk behaviours including smoking, drinking, stimulant abuse, physical fighting, physical inactivity, depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies. Interestingly it is estimated that around 40% of high schools in the US start before 8:00AM and only 15% after 8:30AM.

“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,” (Dr Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement, “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in the September 2014 issue of Paediatrics)

Early to bed, early to rise:

The medical consensus in relation to the biological, psychological and sociological hazards of early starts is very well-documented and non-controversial: this is a health, safety and well-being issue we need to treat seriously.  The rationale and advantages can be found on the following video:

A complex mix of reasons interact to explain why teenagers aren’t bright and breezy in the mornings including piles of homework, the use and abuse of technology, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and home care responsibilities. The idea of an early night for some students is a bit far-fetched.

But there are other reasons at work. The thing is, the biology of adolescents is at odds with early mornings. Medical research has found that the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin begins at around 10:45PM and continues until about 8:00AM, making it hard to get to sleep before 11:00PM and to wake up early. Researchers have found that the sleep patterns of younger children allowed them to get up early and be ready for learning.

The idea of ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ might have worked for Benjamin Franklin but it doesn’t work for teenagers.


In the UK, the importance of sleep education has been largely missed off the agenda, but a group of researchers are taking sleep into the classroom to get us talking and thinking more about the value of sleep and ‘what makes us tick’.

The Teensleep project (funded by the Education Endowment Foundation) is the biggest study ever to look at teenage circadian delay and the effects of sleep education on academic, health and sleep outcomes. Run by the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, the Teensleep project have found:

In adolescence, biological rhythms change in such a way that makes it difficult for teenagers to go to sleep and get up early. Therefore, asking an adolescent to get up at 7:00AM to start school at 9:00AM, is akin to asking a 55-year-old to get up at 5:00AM.

Teensleep argue that by changing the school start time by one hour, from 9:00AM to 10:00AM, teenagers will simply be more awake, alert and ready to learn. Now, that’s something worth considering for teacher-parents who need to drop their own children off at school, but for those who also prefer to start work later …

Late effects:

There is plenty of opposition against ‘later start times’ because of the problems it would cause working parents and the availability of child care, transportation issues and the domino effect it would have on extra-curricular activities.

How valid are these concerns? The Start School Later website, although applicable to the US experience in parts, does answer some of the concerns and focuses on many of the myths and misconceptions that flourish.

Have a lay in

If we are looking for better exam results and better performances from students and teachers, then we all need to ‘start a little later’ and wake up when we are ready. Sleep is the fuel that powers learning, so why don’t we listen to the research and rest? Increased ‘Zzzs’ have proven to lead to more grade As, so early starts make no sense.

I wonder what time they start in Singapore? Sleep on it …

4 thoughts on “Sleep On It …

  1. I read an article that mentioned Singaporeans are some of the most sleep deprived people…
    Singapore schools generally start at about 7.30 am…international schools in Singapore about half an hour later.

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