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The thought, “I am not getting up for school,” must have crossed your mind before. Schools and teachers usually believe their students must have stayed up late the night before so they don’t get enough sleep in class; if they sleep earlier, then they won’t be tired in the morning.

But research on the sleeping habits of teenagers does not support the opinion stated above.

The National Sleep Foundation website points out that our biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence, so it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11 pm.

It also says that teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best. Most teens do not get enough sleep, which limits your ability to learn and damage your health and emotion.

Two years ago, US Secretary of State for Education Arne Duncan tweeted, “Let teens sleep, start school later.” This August, an article on Learning, Media and Technology” journal (free online reading provided), with references of significant studies regarding adolescence and sleep in the past 30 years, quotes Duncan’s call and supports it with scientific approaches.

Social time and biological time

Three of the four co-writers are experts on sleep and the other is a statistical specialist of social science. They first point out that social time and biological time are unnecessary in sync with each other. It is no surprise given the relative novelty of mechanical clocks in evolutionary timescales that our ability to function optimally, including in learning, varies with biological time rather than conventional social times.


Photo Credit: AP

As in the early years of education, this distinction between social time and biological is not critical. In contrast, in late adolescence the conflict between social time and biological time is greater than at any point in our lives. Thus, a 7 am alarm call for older adolescents is the equivalent of a 4.30 am start for a teacher in their 50s.

Failure to adjust education timetables to this biological change leads to systematic, chronic and unrecoverable sleep loss.

Does going to bed and waking up earlier equal having discipline?

Unfortunately, most of the teachers fail to notice the disadvantages of going school too early. They tend to connect the students’ tiredness to laziness or unwilling to go to sleep. Moreover, most teachers believe morning is the best time for learning and that the students can stay more focused if they go to bed earlier.

This idea has been widely spread in Chinese culture and is reflected on traditional proverbs such as, “The early bird catches the worm.” Getting up early is still seen as a virtue to be cultivated. But in fact, adults need to know that sleeping patterns undergo critical changes during adolescence.

Photo Credit:  MC Quinn @ Flickr CC By 2.0

Photo Credit: MC Quinn @ Flickr CC By 2.0

The group at the greatest disadvantage in early starting education systems is those with the latest eveningness chronotype. Researches show that evening-type students showed significantly more use of stimulants and depressants associated with managing sleep such as coffee, cola and nicotine when compared with morning-type students, which may even increase the risk of health and mental health problems.

The authors believe, synchronizing education start times to adolescent biology is the obvious way to address the problem of chronic sleep deprivation currently experienced by adolescents on school days.

Astronomical time data and changes in sleep patterns from international studies show at the age of 10 biological wake time is about 06:30, so synchronized school starting times would be 08:30-09:00. At the age of 16 biological wake time is about 08:00, and synchronized school start times 10:00–10:30, and at 18 biological wake time is about 09:00, and synchronized education start times 11:00–11:30.

Starting school later benefit students

While none of the research on delaying the time high school starts has reflected the suggested benefits of students going to school after ten, yet the results show it is good for students even if school starts just a little bit later, so many scholars are in favor of the idea.

In the U.S., Minneapolis Public Schools moved their start time from 7:15 am to 8:40 am, 50,000 involved students generally liked the change and reported that “attendance, achievement, behavior, and mood improved." Parents were positive, too. 92 percent said they liked the shift, and parents reported that their kids were easier to live with when they weren’t getting up so early.

The authors summarize, all of the studies regarding starting school later show improvement on the sleeping conditions, health and academic performance of students. In contrast, so far no evidence suggests going to school earlier will do any good to the health of children or their grades.

The authors believe it is not difficult to promote a later time for school to start and the policy will definitely bring distinct benefits.

Translated by June
Edited by Olivia Yang