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An absolute lack of sleep hygiene. (Image: Getty Images)

SocietyFebruary 22, 2023

Starting school later could transform teenagers’ learning – so why don’t we do it?

person lying facedown on bed surrounded by laptop, pizza, books, shoes. quite messy, pastel colours, cute comics vibe
An absolute lack of sleep hygiene. (Image: Getty Images)

Could later school start times make it easier for teenagers to learn, while also improving equity? Some researchers – and teenagers – think so. 

“Young people have two big activities in their day: time at school, and hopefully time in bed,” says Liza Edmonds (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Whātua), a paediatrician who works at Otago University. Edmonds, a member of the School Start Times Study Advisory Group, is a co-author of a paper published in January in the New Zealand Medical Journal, arguing that making school start times later is one clear way to target some of the challenges teenagers face in attending and paying attention at school.

“It’s easier to zone out when I’m tired,” says Nina, a year 10 student in Christchurch. Nina sets three alarms in the morning, at 6:30, 6:35, and 6:40, to help her wake up and get to the bus on time. She tries to get seven or eight hours of sleep, but finds that even if she goes to bed early, she doesn’t feel sleepy until 11 or 12. “I tend to be more productive at night,” she says; she does her homework later in the evening, too. 

Research backs up Nina’s experience. “Teenagers’ sleep rhythms are different,” says Edmonds; young people are naturally more alert at night and take longer to wake up in the morning, representing the human variety in chronotypes. (Incidentally, evolutionary biology argues that this is to make sure there’s always someone awake, keeping watch). Edmond cites research showing that teenagers don’t stop producing melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, until 7am, while adults stop around 4am, meaning that, to a teenager, being woken at seven feels like being woken at four. 

In Aotearoa, at least 39% of adolescents report getting less sleep than is needed for their age, and 57% say their sleep is of poor quality. This inadequate sleep impacts ability to focus and retain information, impeding learning. 

A young teenager is sitting in her bed in the dark with only the light of her phone shining on her face.
Teenagers’ circadian rhythms make it harder to sleep at night. Electronic devices don’t help. (Photo: Paula Daniëlse/Getty)

Sleep is a fundamental right, and a lack of sleep impacts Māori, Pasifika and low-income teenagers in particular. “Māori and Pasifika teenagers need more opportunities to thrive,” Edmonds says. Financial pressures, like having to work in the evenings and environmental pressures, like sharing a room or living in noisier neighbourhoods, are some of the many complex and intersecting factors which mean these groups suffer most with the current regime of school times. But, Edmonds says, this means there are more opportunities to change things to help Māori students flourish. 

Better sleep can lead to better student attendance and retention and better learning, and research shows that all those factors have the biggest impact on adolescents who are more economically disadvantaged. “If you’re able to thrive at school, more doors are open to you,” says Edmonds. She’s passionate about these improvements being made for Māori and Pasifika teenagers. While sleep interacts with every part of life, meaning the full impact of later school times might not be immediately or directly measurable, the possibilities of better health and better focus alone are enough, Edmonds says. 

Edmonds and her co-authors argue that school start times are “malleable”. There’s no reason that schools should start at 9am or earlier, just because that’s currently the pattern around the country. Schools have the power to choose their own start times, meaning the policy wouldn’t necessarily require a law change. 

Most teenagers go to school, meaning that changing how school works can impact the majority of teenagers, who have less agency over their schedules than adults. “School is a large portion of your life, so it makes sense to alter that system if it’s not working,” Edmonds says. 

Implementing different school start times would require overcoming some logistical hurdles; several of these are identified in the paper, and the research team has a number of surveys that they’d love family members, young people, teachers and board of trustee members to answer to identify more of the pros and cons. Parents working nine-to-five hours might struggle to help their children get to school if it begins after they’re supposed to be at work; if the policy is only implemented for senior students and school hours are extended into the afternoon it may mean younger whānau members are alone while waiting for their siblings to get home. The timings of before and after school activities and work would have to change too. 

That said, school hours already don’t align with standard nine-to-five work; the school day ends earlier. Shifting school start times later could make it safer for young people to get to school without having to interact with morning traffic. “We really want to hear from communities about what’s important to them,” Edmonds says.

classroom empty with alarm clock floating and slightly odd eerie colours, it's desaturated
Lots of students rely on alarms to get to school on time (Getty Images / Bianca Cross)

“I’ve seen how much of an impact sleep has on my classmates,” says Ruby, a teenager from the Hutt Valley who finished high school in 2022. “Everyone was always tired, but there were no conversations about how to address this.” As a member of the student council, Ruby says there was some brainstorming about the school having later starts, rather than early finishes when there was space in the schedule, but they didn’t reach a conclusion. Instead, even though she usually got eight or nine hours of sleep a night, Ruby saw how much her classmates were “detrimentally affected” by sleep loss, which she connects to the broader youth mental health crisis. Teachers encouraged students to get to bed early, but “most students don’t want to hear a teacher rambling about sleep.” Ruby isn’t sure if later school start times are the best way to help pupils get more sleep, but she agrees that something needs to change.  

Changing school start times isn’t a completely new concept. In 2022, California implemented a law requiring schools to start no earlier than 8:30 am, half an hour later than the US average, to allow students to get more sleep. Wellington High School implemented a 9:45 or later start for its senior students in 2006, rearranging classes so the school day didn’t run later as a result. However, principal Dominic Killalea recently told the NZ Herald that the “experiment” was abandoned – the school didn’t notice changes in achievement, some students weren’t keen, and the policy interrupted other scheduling requirements. 

Beyond the issue of school start times is a larger one of living in a culture that often does not value sleep. Edmonds, who has three teenagers of her own, sees how their biological imperative to sleep gets labelled as lazy. “Teenagers need their sleep,” she says, but a focus on productivity, for young people and adults, can treat that need as a problem. The paper notes that Māori and Pacific ways of experiencing and talking about rest often aren’t valued. In response to this, “we need to reframe how we talk about and value sleep,” Edmonds says. 

While teachers, parents and other authority figures may appear to teens to value work over rest, that’s not the only pressure on them. Cultural products, like music and TV shows, glamourise being up all night. This makes going to bed early feel uncool, Ruby says. For many teenagers, the compulsion to stay up late is aided by electronic devices, and the relative freedom of the night: in the darkness, you can talk to friends and watch videos and have ideas about the world without supervision, classes or work to concentrate on. The only cost is lost sleep. “I hate using phones to explain the woes of the world,” Ruby says, “but if you have to get up early or work after school, pulling out your phone in bed can be a band-aid, then you get into rhythms of getting more and more tired.”

Edmonds hopes that school start times can change, and intends to keep working with other members of the School Start Time Study Advisory Group to research and advocate for this policy. In the meantime, though, she says that teachers, teenagers, and parents all have a role to play in talking to each other about the value of sleep. “I’d like us to see that good sleep is part of being well,” she says. 

Teenagers, too, are optimistic about the possibility of change. “It’s logical to have school at a time that is comfortable for teens,” says Nina. “I want to wake up later!”

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