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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Delayed morning classes may improve student success

Tina Forbes

Sleep deprivation could be one obstacle for the academic success and overall health of Nashua students.

Teens who don’t get enough sleep can experience physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of car accidents and decrease in academic performance, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a solution, the academy recommends a later start time at U.S. middle and high schools. ...

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Sleep deprivation could be one obstacle for the academic success and overall health of Nashua students.

Teens who don’t get enough sleep can experience physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of car accidents and decrease in academic performance, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a solution, the academy recommends a later start time at U.S. middle and high schools.

“Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn. Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, MD, and lead author of the policy statement, “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in this month’s issue of Pediatrics.

In Nashua, the two high schools open at 7:20 in the morning while the three middle schools begin at 8:00. The city’s start times are fairly typical. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 40 percent of U.S. high schools begin before 8:00 a.m., while the average start time for middle schools is 8:00.

The academy recommends middle and high school students should begin the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In 2009, schools in Amherst and Mont Vernon voted against delaying start times by 30 minutes after a year of deliberation. Opponents were concerned with pushing back club meetings and sporting events.

Nashua entertained the same debate a decade ago after a similar study from the National Sleep Foundation warned teens were not getting enough sleep. A special School Times Committee under the city school board recommended an 8 or 8:30 a.m. start time for the high schools during a 2004 public meeting. The committee issued a survey finding 41 percent of residents did not want any change, 24 percent favored an 8 a.m. start time, 16 percent said 8:30, 11 percent said 9 a.m. and 8 percent were unsure.

Superintendent Mark Conrad recalled a “pretty even split” between those for and those against delaying classes, but the major concerns were around changing bus schedules and having elementary students walking to or from school in the dark. Older students worried about missing clubs, athletic and work opportunities. Some families complained that childcare schedules that would need to be rearranged since older siblings who get out of school earlier take care of the younger siblings who get out of school later.

In the end, no changes were made.

Still, early school start times run counter to teen’s biological clocks, the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Teens’ natural sleep cycles make it harder to fall asleep before 11 at night, according to the academy’s report. With classes beginning before 8, students are hard-pressed to get the full 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep recommended for their age group by the National Sleep Foundation.

The foundation found that only 15 percent of teens sleep the minimum of 8.5 hours per night. It also acknowledges this is a difficult problem to reconcile because of district transportation constraints, extracurricular activities, homework and after-school jobs. The transportation problem is tough to mitigate because younger students could end up losing sleep with an earlier schedule so older students can have the later bus schedule. Also, children between the ages of 5 and 12 require even more sleep than teens at 10 to 11 hours per night.

A more simple fix would be for families to limit late-night media time. AAP pointed out students also lose sleep spending time on technological devices, and recommends a “media curfew” for students to encourage better sleep habits. Caffeine and napping can alleviate fatigue but don’t replace the benefits from a good night’s sleep.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” Dr. Owens said.

In terms of car accidents, the National Sleep Foundation said driving while tired is akin to driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent, and that sleep-deprived drivers cause over 100,000 crashes each year. The foundation recommends teens make sleep a priority to combat the affects of deprivation, and offered solutions such as keeping a consistent sleep schedule. Other tactics include avoiding food, drink, exercise and media right before bed, and instead engaging in a calming activity such as reading.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 62,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical specialists and pediatric surgical specialists.

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402 or tforbes@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Forbes on Twitter (@Telegraph_TinaF).