One sleeper of an is­sue

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

CHICAGO — Many adults tend to dis­miss sci­en­tific re­search about the ado­les­cent mind. Per­haps they came of age dur­ing a time when chil­dren, es­pe­cially teens, were ex­pected to be­have as lit­tle adults.

For years the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity has made clear that brains of chil­dren and young adults into their 20s un­dergo phys­i­cal and chem­i­cal changes that can re­sult in high-risk be­hav­iors, vul­ner­a­bil­ity to ad­dic­tion and men­tal ill­ness. Still, some adults scoff at the no­tion that teenagers don’t have com­plete con­trol over their ac­tions.

A sim­i­lar mis­un­der­stand­ing of the child brain seems to be at the heart of the in­creas­ingly vo­cal de­bate over early start times for school.

Though le­gions of doc­tors, sci­en­tists and par­ents agree that teens’ cir­ca­dian rhythms cause them to strug­gle with get­ting to sleep at night and also to awaken early in the morn­ing, many peo­ple be­lieve school hours should not be ad­justed to th­ese phys­i­cal needs.

Take this sen­ti­ment, found on a de­bate.org thread on school start­ing times: “Kids in school don’t need to learn the day starts when they’re ready for it, that pro­motes lazi­ness. They need to learn you need to be ready to go early in the morn­ing if you’re go­ing to be func­tional in this world.”

I’ll ad­mit that long be­fore I be­came the mother of teens, I too be­lieved there was some truth to the no­tion that you shouldn’t cod­dle Type B-per­son­al­ity kids be­cause in our al­ways-on, global work­place, it’s the Type A young­sters who stand a bet­ter chance of suc­ceed­ing.

But the sci­ence makes a com­pelling ar­gu­ment against mere per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity in wak­ing early. The Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics (AAP) has just is­sued a pol­icy state­ment call­ing on mid­dle and high schools to shift their sched­ules to ac­com­mo­date teen bi­ol­ogy.

“Get­ting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose nat­u­ral sleep cy­cles make it dif­fi­cult for them to fall asleep be­fore 11 p.m. — and who face a first-pe­riod class at 7:30 a.m. or ear­lier the next day,” said the AAP, not­ing that the sleep rhythms of ado­les­cents can shift up to two hours later at the start of pu­berty.

“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, lead au­thor of the pol­icy state­ment.

The AAP cited re­search show­ing that kids who don’t get enough sleep are at risk of be­ing over­weight and suf­fer­ing de­pres­sion. Those who do get ad­e­quate rest are less likely to “be in­volved in car ac­ci­dents, and have bet­ter grades, higher stan­dard­ized test scores and an over­all bet­ter qual­ity of life.”

Also true is that school isn’t the only cul­prit in the sleep wars.

A Na­tional Sleep Foun­da­tion poll found that 59 per­cent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 per­cent of high school stu­dents in the U.S. were get­ting less than the rec­om­mended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights, mak­ing them both chron­i­cally sleep-de­prived and patho­log­i­cally sleepy.

But how much of the sleep­less­ness is be­cause so many chil­dren have text-, video- and email-en­abled smart­phones that buzz, beep and chime deep into the night? School hour ad­just­ments won’t cure this. Still, I have pity. When chil­dren are lit­tle, they wake up at the crack of dawn burst­ing to play, run and learn. Sleep-de­prived par­ents vow to de­prive them of their morn­ing slum­ber some­day. I know I did.

But to­day many kids are over­bur­dened with col­lege-ap­pli­ca­tion-boost­ing ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties — or jobs that help support the fam­ily — and are up late do­ing home­work or help­ing around the house. When they du­ti­fully get up at 6 a.m., as mine do, you have to won­der how adults would feel if all business hours started at 7 a.m.

There are many rea­sons to leave school sched­ules alone: par­ents’ work com­mutes, sports sched­ules, and af­ter­school job com­mit­ments. But let’s not be op­posed to it solely on the thin as­sump­tion that mak­ing morn­ings more bear­able will breed lazi­ness or teach any­one to be lax about their adult re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Let the kids sleep.

COM­MEN­TARY

Es­ther Cepeda’s email ad­dress is es­ther­j­cepeda@wash­post.com. Follow her on Twit­ter, @es­ther­j­cepeda.

ES­THER CEPEDA

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