“Waking a teenager up at 6 am is the biological equivalent of waking an adult up at 4 am” —Sleep Research Wendy Troxel, during her Ted Talk.
Sleep deprivation has become the accepted norm for high school students, which is not ok. Sleep is crucial for our physical, mental, and emotional health. It improves the efficacy of vaccines and improves the immune system; it increases our brain’s ability to make new memories by 40%; it facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information.
Because of this, major medical organizations recommend that schools start no earlier than 8:30 am. The science is undeniable. And yet, AISB, a school that supposedly prioritizes learning and well-being, forces students out of bed and into school at 8 am sharp.
Students Need More Sleep
According to data collected by AISB counselor Vera den Otter in September 2021, around 50% of students from Grades 6 to 10 get “not quite enough or minimal sleep.” If this data has been collected and shows a very clear and concerning pattern, then why isn’t anything being done about it?
Kids, particularly teenagers, are constantly being lectured on how to get more sleep and maximize their productivity. They are told that their own actions are to blame for their sleep deprivation, that they go on their phones too much, don’t set themselves up for a good night’s sleep, and don’t manage their time well enough. They are characterized as lazy because they go to sleep late but sleep in for hours.
While it is true that social media usage and screen time makes it more difficult to fall asleep and decreases the quality of sleep, solely placing the blame and responsibility on the shoulders of students is ineffective in solving the problem and does not take into account factors that are beyond their control.
According to Geneviève Gariépy, a post-doctoral student at McGill’s Institute of Health and Social Policy, “As teenagers go through puberty, their circadian clock gets delayed by two to three hours. By the time they reach junior high, falling asleep before 11 p.m. becomes biologically difficult, and waking up before 8 a.m. is a struggle.”
“You hear all these kids joking about how they’re ‘dead inside’ or just always tired, but their jokes are definitely grounded in a real problem where people get home feeling tired, procrastinate, start work late, sleep even later” —G12 Student, James V.
Perhaps it is time to consider that teenagers are not lazy, but rather the current school schedule works against them. Education should be synchronized with adolescent biology, not the other way around.
Students Just Don’t Have Time To Do It All
In order to collect more data on students’ daily routines, a survey was sent out to all AISB secondary students in December 2021, which reported that 65% of students wake up from 6-7am. Seventy-three percent of those students live either within walking distance or a 10-20 car ride from school. Only 10% of students live more than 30 minutes from school.
According to AISB Athletics Director David Hughes, 70% of secondary students participated in after-school activities pre-pandemic, which end between 4:30 to 5 pm. Fifty-seven percent of students get two or more hours of homework, with only 15% getting 30 minutes of homework per day.
According to the Sleep Foundation, high school students need a bare minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night. If the average secondary student at AISB wakes up around 6:30, they would need to get to sleep at 10:30 to get 8 hours of sleep.
If the majority of students have after-school activities until 5pm, factoring in the average of a 10-minute journey back from school and two hours of homework, the absolute earliest they could be finished would be around 7:10. This does not take into account time spent on socializing, family time, eating, social media, procrastination, hobbies, or relaxation.
“As a student who lives quite far from school, it takes me 30 minutes to get to school on a good day. Yet we are still told that we need to complete homework, do CCAs, have time to do our own activities, spend time with family, and go to bed at a reasonable time. It’s impossible” —G6 Student, Paige B.
There’s an argument to be made that if students aren’t getting enough sleep, they should cut back on activities and free time, and set aside more time for homework. However, the importance of adolescent mental health cannot be overlooked, especially in the aftermath of the COVID 19 pandemic.
Youth stress is extremely prevalent, and Gen Z is the most likely out of all generations to report poor mental health, and leisure time is a necessary tool to combat that. Studies show that leisure time helps young people develop social skills needed in the real world, reduces stress and anxiety, builds personality, and raises self-esteem.
“I have always wished schools would be more open minded about this topic since it is scientifically proven by so many health and sleep institutions that asking a teenager to wake up at 7 is really immoral” —G11 Student, Marko G.
How ISP Paved the Way
Schools all around the world are implementing later start times, including the US’s highest performing high school and fellow CEESA school, the International School of Prague (ISP).
In 2018, ISP changed its start time from 8 to 8:45 am. The change was led by the Director of Learning, Research and Development, Teresa Belisle, who, along with a team of students and faculty formed the Sleep Well, Be Well, Learn Well initiative.
In her role, Ms. Belisle is responsible for leading the school in finding new ways to aid student well-being, both in and out of school.
In the early days of the Sleep Well, Be Well, Learn Well initiative, the focus was on proposing the idea to the leadership team and board members. A survey was then sent out and task forces were formed to tackle the key issues that surfaced.
One of those key issues was traffic. “It was quite ironic actually, once we made the shift, the [local] school and the mayor were very happy because it actually helped with the traffic,” says Ms. Belisle.
Then, Ms. Belisile and the team presented the idea to the parents. “We found there was a tendency for Eastern Europeans to say “You’ve got to be tough,” and “This teaches you to be tough,” and a lot of people just never got the idea that through adolescence the circadian rhythm shifts; it’s a matter of science.”
Then, they used focus groups of students and parents to collect data and encourage dialogue within the groups and hear from others in the same boat. She says that this process helped to weed out misconceptions and biases caused by a lack of acceptance to change.
Finally, after a year of collecting data, researching, conducting focus groups and convincing parents, students, and faculty, the start time was changed from 8-8:45 in the 2018-19 school year.
“Just because it’s more convenient for some people or certain parts of the population to make certain choices, don’t we still have to do what we know is best for the students?” —Teresa Belisle
Obstacles and Challenges
The evidence in favor of sleep is overwhelming. It helps students retain information better, it is correlated with better academic results, it helps students perform better athletically, it reduces the possibility of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and lessens the risk of substance abuse.
So why aren’t more schools implementing later start times when there is so much scientific evidence out there that makes the argument for it?
Delaying school start times presents logistical challenges for students, families, and the community as a whole. These challenges, although legitimate, can easily be addressed and overcome, and are not an excuse to fail to do the right thing for the health and well being of students.
After speaking with both Ms. Belisle and AISB Director Peter Welch, there were a few main logistical challenges that were consistently mentioned: parent work schedules, transportation logistics, effects on extracurricular activities, traffic, and scheduling issues.
While implementing the Sleep Well, Be Well, Learn Well initiative at ISP, Ms. Belisle faced concerns with child care for younger children with working parents. They offered “Before Care” to these parents; but as Ms. Belisle explains, “We thought there was going to be a much bigger uptake. By the 3rd or 4th month we only had two students, so we discontinued it.”
Furthermore, at a time when many parents are still working from home and have a more flexible schedule, the issue of parents being unable to drop their kids off due to work schedules is significantly less relevant.
According to The TomTom Traffic Index, Bucharest is the 4th most congested city in Europe and the 14th most congested city in the world. For those who live farther away from the school, traffic congestion means waking up even earlier in the morning in order to get to school on time.
TomTom estimates that Bucharest traffic is most congested around 7-8am and 4-6pm. Pipera is a school district with many schools on the same street, and traffic congestion is often caused by students trying to get to school or parents driving to work. By pushing back AISB’s start time by an hour, traffic, both before and after school, would be reduced significantly.
Although traffic is a significant issue in Bucharest at all times, given that 73% of secondary students live either within walking distance or 10-20 minutes away from school, the issue of public transportation and traffic is significantly less relevant.
Perhaps the biggest logistical challenge of all is that of scheduling. The schedule is carefully designed by the leadership team to coordinate with both the secondary and primary schools and meet the required DP hours, making it difficult to alter, but certainly not impossible.
In winter, it can get dark as early as 4:30pm, and many students have extracurricular activities outside of school that would be affected if the school were to end later. It would also defeat the purpose of having more time to sleep in if students were staying up later. With this in mind, secondary students were asked to propose solutions for shortening the school day.
An overwhelming majority of surveyed students suggested cutting flex time, an allocated time from 9:30 to 10:15 every day for advisory discussions and activities of students’ choice.
“I find that flex time isn’t very productive on some days,” says 9th grader Clara D. “The advisory discussions are good sometimes, but I would rather shorten the school day than have flex time because I just feel it isn’t a good use of school time.”
According to AISB’s DP Coordinator Aliza Robinson, “Over the course of two years, [flex time] adds about 12-15 hours to each HL class.” This means that although cutting flex time would be the easiest solution to shortening the school day, it could pose complications with meeting the requirements of the IB curriculum.
That said, those 12-15 hours could easily be made up in alternative ways. An easy solution to this would be using Zoom, a platform that has become an essential tool during covid times, to run HL classes before or after school.
Another solution would be keeping the start time at 8 for students in the DP Program and pushing back the start time for the rest of the school. Although this may be inconvenient for parents with children in both higher and lower grades, 11th and 12th graders can surely make their own way to school, especially given the fact that 73% of secondary students live either within walking distance or 10-20 minutes away.
ISP’s current upper school schedule, which starts at 8:45 and ends at 3:30, is also a model that could be easily adopted by AISB, as it is also tailored to meet IB requirements. Each class block is 75 minutes long, with the exception of the last block of the day, which is only 70 minutes. Due to the later start time, there is no morning break, and lunch is only 45 minutes.
The Path to Change
Sixty-four percent of secondary students support AISB starting at 9, and only 12.5% are against the idea. The students of AISB are letting their voices be heard loud and clear. Now someone has to take action.
Reforms are being made to outdated systems all over the world. In Romania, the government is even proposing the idea of an optional 4-day work week.
AISB students deserve to be set up for success, and outdated societal norms and fear of change should not get in the way of that. If this school really prioritizes students’ well-being and genuinely wants to prepare students for all aspects of life in the real world, they will let them dream a little longer.
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This is so good!! As a student, I’m so relieved that someone’s speaking up for us, and with such great writing too.
Great job, Pia. This is an important discussion to have and one that is too easily dismissed by adults. I’ve personally never heard a convincing argument against starting later.
Excellent article Pia, very well researched and written! As a school counselor, I would absolutely support a later start of the school day. I am also ready to support students with sleeping issues, sometimes it is a combination of things, and good and enough sleep is essential to wellbeing
This is a great article Pia!