Grad Publication: Gideon Dunster on the benefits of delayed school start for Seattle high-school students
In the Fall of 2015, administrators for the local Seattle Public Schools (SPS) voted to delay the start times for their high and middle schools from 7:50am to 8:45am. The move would require an investment of time and money by the district to shift bus schedules, resolve practice field conflicts with the city, and reorder the school day to fit the new times. Some parents would have to change their transportation schedules to get their kids to or from school on time, while families who relied on sibling care now needed alternatives so that their younger children were not home alone in the afternoon. Given the impact to the everyday lives of many Seattleites, why would the school district make such a decision? It turns out the answer lays in a tiny bundle of cells in the teenage brain!
|High School students in the study were outfitted with wrist watches that|
recorded their sleep patterns
One of the most important things that the SCN controls is when we sleep and when we are awake. In the evening, the SCN sends signals to prepare our bodies for rest while in the morning it sends opposite signals to arouse our bodies in preparation for a day of eating, thinking, and moving. During puberty, there is a shift in the circadian rhythms of teenagers that delays their sleep patterns. As a result, teens prefer to go to bed later and wake up later. Teens also need more sleep than adults, further pushing back their natural waking times. However, in most developed countries we require teens to wake up early in order to attend school. This puts teens in the middle of two competing forces: their biological need for later sleep vs. the societal need for an early school start time (SST). The result? In the United States, teens are currently facing a national sleep deprivation epidemic with dire consequences for their mental and physical health, academic success, and economic futures. Thus, it is easy to understand why SPS delayed their start times: if you cannot change the biology, we must change the society.
From a scientist’s perspective, this delay in SST’s offered a rare opportunity to perform a “natural” experiment. Rather than invite students into an “artificial” lab environment to control their sleep patterns and measure an outcome, my advisor, Dr Horacio de laIglesia, and I decided to track student sleep patterns as they went about their lives in their “natural” environment. Using wrist watches scientifically designed to track sleep patterns, we would measure how students were sleeping the spring before (2016) and after (2017) the delay went into effect at two local high schools: Roosevelt and Franklin. With the help of some collaborators, local teachers, and the school board, we would also collect grades, attendance information, and data on daytime sleepiness, depression, and other variables with the hopes of getting a clear picture of how the delay affected students. The results of our study were published this past December in Science Advances.
|The actograms show sleep patterns represented in graphical form|
Delaying the SST’s here in Seattle was not an easy task, but the benefit to our students from this single intervention is impossible to deny. While this is not the first study to look at SST’s with a critical eye, it is the first time such a large school district has been studied in real time during a delay in the United States. As the evidence grows, we hope that other districts will follow Seattle’s example and the call from the American Association of Pediatrics to delay SST’s for the health of our nation’s teens.
~ Gideon Dunster
For more on this study, take a look at the coverage by UW News and NPR