Sleep and Teenagers

12th February

I remember one Christmas when my children were teenagers, wandering round the house at about 8am in excited anticipation, impatiently waiting for them to wake up so the festivities could begin. That year things didn’t even start to happen until about 11 and I accepted once and for all that as far as sleep went adults and teens were two different entities.

The science had been telling me this as long as I had been an educational psychologist and before that an advisory teacher for emotional, social and behavioural difficulties. As adrenarche kicks in, that’s a large-scale hormone-led developmental surge that triggers puberty, something in the teenager’s brain changes so that the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates and makes sleep possible and begins a good couple of hours later in the evening than it does for non-teens. Add to that the 24 hour allure of smartphones, laptops and computer games and it is hardly surprising that when morning comes and most children and adults are starting their day, all the average teenager wants to do us lie in.

When I was asked to provide some comment for the Steve Jardine programme on BBC Scotland to a discussion on a campaign to change the secondary school day to a later start I was happy to contribute and made it clear I was largely in favour. After all, the growing body of empirical evidence is unequivocable in its claims that teenagers’ learning, health and well-being all benefit from this arrangement. The brain’s optimal function requires good quality sleep and if it doesn’t get it this is to the detriment of mood, behaviour, attention, reason, decision making and planning, memory, weight regulation and mental health to name only some of the complexities of living that challenge everyone, let alone teenagers who also have a multitude of other age-specific issues.

What surprised me was the weight of resistance from listeners to the programme. One view aired repeatedly and with great moral certainty was that teenagers needed to grow up and buckle down to the real world and that adjusting the school day to accommodate their sleep ‘preferences’ was just indulgence of this ‘snowflake’ generation.

Another view espoused by a very confident sounding mum and reiterated by her tired sounding teenager son was that shifting the day forward would interfere with his and his three siblings’ packed after school timetable to say nothing of the parents’ pressured work schedules:

“If we started the day any later we wouldn’t be getting to bed until midnight”, the mum pronounced. I didn’t doubt it as it seemed unlikely that the possibility of doing a little less extracurricular activity was an option. What were the chances of a parent as driven as this one being flexible and child-friendly enough to accommodate a major school timetable change?

Yet another view from the anti lobby was that shifting the school day forward would present “logistical” problems as far as timetabling and travel went. Might I be forgiven for thinking that both of these serve to support different activities rather than the other way round? Also, am I the only one who has heard the blame attributed to school traffic for the rush hour challenges and wouldn’t a later start possibly ease the load?

In reality the later school day start is nothing new. A major trial by Oxford University funded by the the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust took place in 2014 and involved more than 100 school and some discernible and positive school performance effects were produced. Head teachers, in consultation with their governing bodies, parent group and staff have license any time they wish to change the school hours. Clearly, there would be a transition period in which problems would no doubt arise but equally no doubt, would be addressed but the fact is, the weight of scientific evidence to support this change to the school day is increasing. This can’t be rejected on the basis of anecdote, polemic or flawed logic. I hope at least some schools will embrace the idea and then feedback on how things work out.

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