With many schools returning to in-person learning – and earlier schedules – even as the pandemic continues, how can parents help their adolescents sleep more soundly?
“As I often phrase it, multilevel interventions are needed,” says Wendy Troxel, a senior scientist and sleep expert at the Rand Corp. By that, she says she means that families, schools, and state and local governments should contribute to finding solutions.
Families, Troxel says, can do a lot to support teen sleep by removing technology from their bedrooms. Have a central place – not a bedroom – for the entire family to disconnect from their phones and charge them overnight. Research suggests parents can be influential role models: children often copy their mother and dad’s technology habits.
Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says another evidence-based way for teenagers to get sleep during the pandemic and beyond is to get plenty of exposure to natural light, ideally in the morning.
“Light is the strongest physiological cue to the brain, providing vital information to kick-start the alert phase of our circadian rhythm,” she says.
If natural light isn’t abundant, try one of the sunlight lamps designed for people who suffer mood changes in the winter.
Robbins and other sleep experts say now is the time to double down on basic sleep hygiene. Persuade your adolescent to stick to a regular routine; avoid caffeine, alcohol and aerobic exercise within four hours of sleep time; and make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages 6 to 12 should sleep from nine to 12 hours per day and teenagers 13 to 18 should sleep eight to 10 hours.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
A 2013 CDC study found that 68% of U.S. high school students reported getting less than eight hours of sleep on school nights.
Some schools in Australia and New Zealand that have experimented with start times of 10 a.m. or later report that this has helped students’ focus in class.
Sleep-deprived adolescents – forced for generations to wake for school before the chimes of their circadian clocks – have had an unexpected break amid the anxiety and losses of the pandemic. Remote learning has allowed many of them to stay in bed an extra hour or more, providing a “natural experiment” that sleep experts hope will inform the long and stubborn debate over school starting times.
So far, many results are anecdotal. Some kids are sleeping longer and more soundly, starting classes ready and refreshed. Others are tossing and turning, beset by anxiety or staying up later staring at screens. The varying experiences offer families and schools a glimpse of the effects of later schedules – and the possibility that the past year will yield enough evidence to persuade schools to follow scientists’ guidance to begin the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Finally, some were able to get the eight to 10 hours of sleep that experts have long recommended for their age group, but which they’ve missed for having to catch buses and report to their classrooms as early as 7:30 a.m.
“From a health standpoint, it’s overwhelmingly positive to have this reset and see what a little more sleep feels like,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies sleep and circadian health.
Jack Poppleton, an eighth-grader at the Manhasset Secondary School in Long Island, can speak to the benefits of this small silver lining. Early in the pandemic, his school switched to remote learning on alternate days. On the in-person days, Poppleton must report to class by 8:10 a.m., the pre-coronavirus schedule. But on remote days, his first class begins at 9:04, letting him snooze an extra hour.
“I do better work on the days I start later,” he said. “When I’m kind of sleepy, I feel detached. It’s harder to think. And why go to school if you can’t think?”
Sid Rundle, the principal of Cresthill Middle School, in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, said he has heard many similar stories despite the upheaval of the past year.
“There’s no question that some students are thriving with this newer model,” he said.
Rundle’s school is a test case in itself.
When his district switched to fully remote learning last November, he delayed the start of the day’s first class by an hour, to 8:30 a.m., a change he had wanted to make for years.
“We were all in a survival mode,” he said. “So I didn’t have any bureaucracy around to tell me I couldn’t go ahead.”
He said the later schedule proved to be “an absolute game-changer” for teachers and students. “The kids were definitely more awake, excited and engaged,” Rundle added, with “fewer zombies and more active learners.”
Melissa Rapp said she has seen the change in her daughter Emma, 12, a student at Rundle’s school. Before the pandemic, Rapp said she had to drag Emma out of bed each weekday morning. Even after Emma set two alarms, Rapp said she had to come in at least three times, flipping on lights and playing loud music by the indie pop group Walk Off the Earth and other bands her daughter dislikes.
The switch to the later schedule was “super-amazing,” Rapp said. For nearly three months, until Cresthill switched back to in-person learning in February, Emma was waking by herself, rested and ready to learn. Since then, however, her daughter’s morning mood has soured, Rapp said.
Trendy as it may be to complain about “blursday,” the pandemic’s conflation of weekdays and weekends may be also helping the sleep-deprived by eliminating the “social jet lag” that comes from waking early Monday after sleeping in on Sunday.
Other kids have found no advantage in the past year’s changing schedule, however, for reasons that await further research.
“I’m hearing about some improved sleep, but more of my clients are having serious sleep issues,” said Sarah Gumlak, a psychiatrist working with young people in Maine. “I’ve never given out so many sleep hygiene resources.” (See “Pandemic sleep advice.”)
The students who are struggling to adapt are challenged by changes in routines, less physical activity, more anxiety about school, increased screen time because of remote learning, and a lot of cabin fever at home, Gumlak said.
“There’s also a need for alone time once everyone else has gone to bed, as well as testing rules around sleep,” she said. “Kids will always feel the need to test something, and they don’t have as many outside world rules to test right now.”
Hope and Elle Drahos, 14-year-old twins attending school in Williamstown, N.J., have both had worse sleep since the switch to remote learning, even though it gives them an extra hour in the morning.
Elle said she wakes up once or twice every night, worrying about her friends. “I can’t see them. I can just text them, so I can’t really catch up with them,” she said.
Hope said she stays asleep all night but that it takes her about 20 minutes longer to fall asleep, mainly because of school-related worries, such as trying to recall if she had turned in an assignment.
“Before, we’d always remember because we’d be right there in class,” she said. “Remote learning gives us more responsibility.”
She misses her in-person classes, but said that on the mornings after a poor night’s sleep, she is extra grateful for the later start.
For several years, doctors and sleep researchers have been urging schools to follow abundant scientific evidence and push back the start of the class day.
Scientists argue that adolescents – an age group some contend should extend until 24 – are suffering severe sleep-deprivation. That contributes to a startling list of problems, surfacing sooner or later, including but not limited to: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, substance abuse, mood disorders and vehicle crashes, experts say. Getting adequate sleep improves overall health, even bolstering immune systems, possibly improving the effectiveness of some vaccines.
The Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start their days no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Even so, at last count, 93 percent of U.S. high schools and 83 percent of middle schools were not following that guidance.
In October 2019, California became the first state to pass legislation, set to take effect in 2022, mandating that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle schools no earlier than 8 a.m.
In early February, Cresthill Middle returned to in-person learning and resumed its previous schedule, leaving Rundle to wonder whether the pandemic’s “natural experiment” would someday help convince school officials to switch permanently to later starting times.
“I do hope we can have a conversation about what we learned from all this,” he said. “I don’t know of one colleague of mine who doesn’t believe that later start times are the right way to go.”
For now, the signals from school leaders’ groups aren’t encouraging. James Minichello, speaking for the School Superintendents Association, said his organization wasn’t tracking the issue of school start times. Bob Farrace, spokesperson for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said in an email: “It’s just not a trend that we’ve been attending to as our members have not identified it as top of mind.”