Teens Rise, But Don’t Shine Their Worst Hours Are In The Early Morning, Sleep Study Concludes
At 8 o’clock on school mornings, Jillian Lastra stares intently at the chalkboard during her math class at the New York City Museum School in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.
She appears to be learning geometry formulas about line segments, but she can barely keep her eyes open. She slouches in her chair. She sneaks a catnap when her teacher is not looking, head propped between her palms.
Lastra, 13, is in what sleep researchers call a twilight zone, caused by sleep deprivation.
As every teenager and every teacher knows, the first hour of the school day can be a grueling exercise. When children hit puberty, many want to stay up later and sleep in, not rise and shine for school.
Teachers, parents and even experts in sleep disorders long blamed the morning sleepiness on television or the telephone, peer pressure, rebelliousness, more homework or laziness.
But now, the nation’s leading researchers in sleep disorders agree that biology, as well as social pressure, plays a large role. They have observed teenagers in sleep laboratories, measuring their levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s cycles of sleepiness and wakefulness.
And they seem to agree that it defies nature to expect teenagers to get up early for class and perform at their peak.
“We have these kids so sleep-deprived, it’s almost as if they are drugged,” said James B. Maas, a psychology professor at Cornell University who is an expert in sleep disorders. “Educators like myself are teaching walking zombies.”
Instead of wanting to sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., students like Jillian, 13, are more naturally inclined to go to sleep as late as 2 a.m. and stay in bed until noon, researchers say.
To be sure, researchers caution, there are teenagers who, like adults, are naturally early risers and tend to perform better in morning classes. But for Jillian, every morning is a struggle. Having fallen asleep about midnight, she gets up at 6 a.m., and her body acts as if she has jet lag.
“What is happening to their biology may be preventing them and working against them going to bed earlier,” said Mary A. Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s School of Medicine who is another of the nation’s sleep-disorder experts.
Sleep researchers are still investigating how biology affects teenagers’ sleep patterns, but Dr. Carskadon said that during puberty, children appear to adjust less flexibly than adults do to schedule changes - say, later hours on weekends.
“It really does seem to be the body driving these preferences,” she said. “We think it’s more difficult for adolescents to make enforced adjustments.”
Dr. Carskadon said that teenagers also appear to be more vulnerable to what is known as “delayed phase preference,” in which people “feel better and perform activities later in the day and into the night, and feel worse doing things early in the morning.”
Teenagers who start the day a little later may also get better grades, according to preliminary research at Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Richard Allen, who founded the Sleep Disorder Center at the university, studied two groups of adolescents with different starting times, 7:30 and 9:30. He found that the later risers performed better academically.
“Kids in early-starting schools have accumulated a sleep loss,” he said. “Kids get increasingly sleepy during the day, and since you are sleepy, the mind is less amendable to learning.”
Sleep researchers dream of a world where high school starts at 9:30 or 10, instead of the more typical 7:30 or 8. They say the sleep patterns of teenagers shift when they are moving through high school, a biological change that is compounded by school days that begin earlier than when the students were in middle and elementary school.
As a result, some students, like Jillian, nod off in 10-second “micro-sleeps.” They lose their concentration and miss important facts during lectures.
“I’ll be thinking about my boyfriend, Carlos, or thinking about playing basketball,” Jillian said. An eighth grader, she has fond memories of her elementary school days at Public School 3 in Greenwich Village, when the school bell rang at a more reasonable 9 o’clock in the morning. “I felt more comfortable. I didn’t find myself dozing off in class.”
Now, she and her classmates are so sluggish in the morning that they have informally worked out pacts to poke each other when their teacher, Ron Chaluisan, glares in their direction. “They’re not like up yet,” he said. “They are still sleeping.”
Chaluisan said he tries to adjust his teaching style to the time of day. During first period, he does not anticipate a flurry of eagerly raised hands.
“I know a lot of the motivation and a lot of the energy is going to have to come from me,” said Chaluisan, who is also a co-director of the small alternative school that makes treks to museums several times a week. “I end up with a lot of back and forth between me and the class, a lot of direct calling on students.”