Tired teens: sleep lost in game of life

December 19, 2019

Only five percent of Algonquin students are getting the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.*

*According to a Harbinger survey of 304 students conducted from Nov. 17 to Dec. 1 through Google Forms

Sleep deprivation is linked to increased rates of depression and anxiety, diminished academic performance, unhealthy body mass, impaired immune system function and a greater risk for car accidents, substance abuse and sports injuries.

So why aren’t students prioritizing their sleep?

“Sleep is something that is absolutely essential for everybody,” school district physician Dr. Safdar Medina said. “When we fall asleep, a lot more happens than just closing our eyes. Our brain completely shuts off, our muscles relax and our immune systems turn on.”

Medina believes students would see a positive change in their lives if they were to get an adequate amount of sleep.

“They would be happier,” Medina said. “They would be healthier, and I think we would see everything improve.”

Sleepless at Algonquin

Eighty-eight percent of The Harbinger’s survey respondents indicated that homework impacted the amount of sleep they get per night, followed by 78 percent saying school start time, 66 percent saying technology and 62 percent saying stress.

Freshman Amabelle Sandford, who averages 3.5 hours of sleep per school night, says homework affects her amount of sleep.

“Arguably we can get [our homework] done in a reasonable amount of time, but that’s only if we don’t put in full effort which is what’s actually expected of us if we want to be getting good grades,” Sandford said. “Because I am putting in so much effort in my homework so that I can do well, I am not getting any sleep.”

Elena Grinblatas
Junior Rachel White rests her head at the beginning of double second period.

Sandford completes anywhere from five to 10 hours of homework a day. While she does worry about the health effects associated with a lack of sleep, Sandford chooses to prioritize her academics.

“I’m totally conscious that it’s dangerous to be doing what I’m doing and to barely be getting any sleep,” Sandford said. “But there’s really nothing I can do about it because I have to ask myself which matters more: grades or sleep.”

Senior Paul Probst, who averages less than three hours of sleep on school nights, shares this mindset. 

“Sleep is amazing, and I recognize all the health benefits that sleep can give you,” Probst said. “There’s also work that needs to be done. In order to keep up, I feel like there are things I need to take on and things I need to do. It’s a matter of balancing priorities. Sleep is one of my priorities, but it’s not the only priority.”

Probst finds that extracurriculars, work, family obligations and stress interfere with the amount of sleep he gets, along with homework. He acknowledges that his own choices contribute to his lack of sleep, but believes that they stem from outside pressures.

“I’m aware that the commitments I’ve taken on, AP classes, extracurriculars, the number of colleges I’m applying to, are all choices that I’ve made,” Probst said. “I’m making choices that increase the amount of work I have, but I’m also aware of the fact that a lot of these choices I make are because of external and academic standards and pressures that I feel I need to meet.”

Some students, like senior Kayla Albers, do find ways to prioritize sleep. Albers is one of the 15 percent of students who averages eight or more hours of sleep per school night.

Her freshman and sophomore years, Albers went to bed at midnight, but then felt motivated to make a change.

“My body just started hating me,” Albers said.

Since getting more sleep, Albers has noticed a positive impact on her mood and grades.

Health teacher Caroline Current, who teaches a unit on sleep as part of the sophomore Health & Fitness curriculum, underscores the link between sleep and academic performance.

“While you’re sleeping, that’s the time when your body puts the learned things into stored memory,” Current said. “They’ve done studies where they see that when kids get a good amount of sleep, they perform better in school not only just as far as test grades go, but they’re more alert. They’re more attentive. They’re able to concentrate.”

Running on 3.5 hours of sleep daily, Sandford has noticed an impact on her academics. She is one of 55 percent of students who feels tired at school every day. She also falls asleep in class once or twice a week.

“I can’t focus,” Sandford said. “The words just go right through my brain. I don’t comprehend anything.”

Only a freshman, Sandford is concerned that her homework load will get more challenging throughout high school.

“I have to choose between my academic success and my own well-being which shouldn’t even be in question,” Sandford said.

Start time

Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents cited school start time as a factor that affects the amount of sleep they get per night.

People are going to be tired at 7 a.m. no matter how much sleep you get. You’re going to be exhausted. I think it takes a lot out of the learning experience of your first period and even second period classes.”

— Senior Kayla Albers

Because of a shift in circadian rhythms during adolescence, it is hard for teenagers to fall asleep early. Their bodies delay the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, until 11 p.m., which then takes eight to nine hours to wear off. 

“When you’re trying to wake up for school, there’s still melatonin in your body that’s trying to fight the need to wake up,” Medina said.

According to the AAP, early start times are a “key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep.” 

The AAP is one of several organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, that recommend middle and high schools start no later than 8:30 a.m.

“The early start time makes it really challenging for teens to get enough sleep because if their bodies are not really ready to fall asleep before 11 at night, they’re going to average six to seven hours of sleep instead of that eight or nine hours they should be getting,” chapter leader of Northborough-Southborough Start School Later Michelle Brownlee said.

Even Albers, who averages eight hours of sleep, finds that the 7:20 a.m. start time has impacted her learning in classes that are early in the day.

“People are going to be tired at 7 a.m. no matter how much sleep you get,” Albers said. “You’re going to be exhausted. I think it takes a lot out of the learning experience of your first period and even second period classes.”

Medina believes that many hold the misconception that pushing the start time would just result in students going to bed later at night.

“One of the myths that comes out of that is  ‘Won’t they just go to bed later?’ and that doesn’t happen,” Medina said. “Teenagers still go to bed at the same time even if you delay your start time.”

Probst sees this shift as a drawback; he wouldn’t support a decision to push school start time because he believes it would impact his productivity.

“If the school start time were pushed back later, I would be sacrificing homework time and time to work after school, but I wouldn’t be gaining any time to work before school because I wouldn’t wake up to do homework,” Probst said. “I’d just be sleeping in without making up any of the productive time that I have after school.”

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), studies of schools that have already shifted to a later start time reveal increased attendance rates, decrease in disciplinary action, decrease in student-involved car accidents, increase in student GPA and a decrease in students sleeping during instruction. The studies were done in schools across the country and in a “broad range of developed environments.”

Addressing the sleep deficit

The district formed the School Start Time Task Force last spring to look into the possibility of a later start time for Algonquin. Any change in school start time will take place no sooner than the 2021-2022 school year, and the task force plans to make a recommendation by April of 2020.

“There’s a lot of studies that have been published proving that the circadian rhythm of teenagers doesn’t fit within our current timeline of school and showing that students are lacking sleep and that they’re too tired with starting the school day at 7:20 a.m.,” member of the School Start Time Task Force and math teacher Mary Rose Steele said. “The school has, in response to this, put together the task force so that we can address the situation, address the concerns and see if there’s something that we can do to help our students out.”

Elena Grinblatas
Senior Kayla Dantz begins to eat her breakfest in the school parking lot. It’s hard for many students to find the time to eat a breakfast at home before school.

One of the factors involved in the decision to push school start time is the potential cost because of bussing. School Bus Consultants (SBC) was hired to analyze the districts’ student transportation operations. They recommended a scenario where Algonquin’s start time is pushed to 9 a.m., which would result in an estimated cost between $0 and $120,400.

While some might be concerned with an increase in their tax dollars, Brownlee believes this expense is far outweighed by the benefits of a later start. 

“There’s a benefit both to the students and to the greater community because the car accident risk is real,” Brownlee said. “To have all these young, drowsy drivers driving to school is a hazard not only for themselves but for the community at large.”

Not only will the community be safer, Brownlee says, but an increase in taxes now will pay for itself over time.

“I would argue that whatever additional taxes you might need to pay will pay for itself because your property values are likely to increase if our schools are viewed as progressive and on the forefront of doing what’s best for the students,” Brownlee said.

Later school start time is only part of a potential solution to curb the sleep deficit at Algonquin. 

Fishman urges students to put as much importance on getting enough sleep as they would with any other aspect of health. She also believes that keeping good sleep hygiene, such as staying off of media for a period of time before bed, is important for students to consider.

“You should give your body and your brain time to come down to a more relaxed state,” Fishman said. “You can’t just jump into bed and fall asleep”

According to Medina, students should put their cell phones away 60 minutes before bedtime, ideally keeping them out of the room to avoid their distractions altogether. 

“Any time you’re looking at any kind of light before bedtime, your body cannot make melatonin the way it needs to make melatonin to help you fall asleep,” Medina said.

In sophomore Health & Fitness, students learn strategies to make up for their sleep deficit.

“We talk about trying to get in power naps to make up for the loss so if they’re lacking three or four hours of sleep per week, how to get in 45 minute naps in intervals to strategize to make up for the sleep loss,” Current said.

However, Current cautions her students to take naps in the afternoon and for no longer than an hour and 15 minutes. Otherwise, these naps can get in the way of nighttime sleeping.

Medina acknowledges that many students are overscheduled, potentially juggling sports, part time jobs and extracurriculars on top of homework, which can limit the amount of time they have for sleep.

“What’s one thing you can potentially give up?” Medina said. “That could buy you an extra hour or two of sleep at night, and that would be well worth it.”


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