Tuesday 12 December 2017

Body clock is to blame for tired teens

Parents often have a tough time trying to rouse their teens in the mornings. Now a radical proposal from a school in the UK has solved this problem and gained greater exam results too

Ailin Quinlan

WHEN headmaster Paul Kelley says teenagers do better at school if they're allowed to sleep late, people sit up and listen.

A year ago Kelley changed the start time for classes at his school in the UK. As a result, pupils started work an hour later than usual -- and exam results improved by up to 30pc.

A school principal for 15 years, Kelley moved Monkseaton School's timetable forward to start at 10am, after studying scientific evidence that the teenage body clock lags several hours behind that of adults and younger children.

Although the traditional adolescent reluctance to rise at a reasonable hour has often been attributed to laziness, research shows different.

Melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleepiness, kicks in two hours later in adolescence, while the hormones that drive our natural alertness also fall behind.

Studies indicate that although young children will sleep naturally from about 9pm to about 7am, for teenagers the start of sleep time shifts to about midnight, and their 'wake' time to about 9am -- which means that many are barely awake when classes begin.

A discussion with Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuro-Science at the University of Oxford, changed Kelley's outlook, he recalls.

"Someone recommended that I speak to Professor Russell Foster of Oxford, and he told me a lot of stuff about the teenage time-shift and young adult sleep rhythms. That was a revelation to me," says headmaster Kelley, whose school is in Tyneside, North East England.

It took about six or seven years to get it all organised. Kelley began by giving students an international written test which helped determine their sleep patterns and the results conformed to the research.

Then the students were tested again to determine whether there was any difference between their performance in the morning and evening and, as it turned out, there was.

"The most surprising thing for me is that students do 10pc better in the afternoon than the morning," Kelley says.

"Teachers believe they're better in the morning because students are more biddable but that's because they're more sleepy!

"Teachers themselves are better in the morning because they're adults and so are young children -- but for teenagers, it seems, afternoon and early evening is best."

That, however, was only the beginning. Because the research said the natural alertness of the human being is better in natural light above a specific intensity, Kelley installed a huge skylight made of nano-gel in the roof of the school -- this diffuses natural light and allows it into the work environment.

The school also surveyed parents, students and staff on the proposal to start later. Although the teachers were split 50/50, the students were 70pc and parents about 60pc in favour, he recalls.

The school ran the later start time as a pilot project for a period of five months and then carried out the survey again.

This time about 70pc of the parents and 80pc of the students were in favour, though the staff was still split. Kelley forged ahead.

"We start at about 10am, and, although students can come in from 8am and stay as late as 5pm, the school day now starts at 10am and finishes at 3.40pm."

Recent examination results have justified his actions: "The exam results are up by 20pc to 30pc.

"We don't know for certain how much of this is the result of the new start time but I feel it's definitely one of the things that helped."

Interestingly, it seems the move has been more effective with boys than with girls.

"This 'lag' is something that happens at the same time as puberty and males are impacted more than females by puberty."

His initiative has achieved widespread public attention.

"We've had a lot of interest from schools and also from TV stations from Korea and America," says Kelley who has also been invited to Italy to speak about the initiative.

However, while such an initiative may be necessary for some teenagers, not every adolescent automatically suffers from sleep lag, cautions Dr Catherine Crowe (below left), consultant in Sleep Disorders Medicine at the Mater Private Sleep Disorder Clinic.

While morning sloth in up to 16pc of teenagers may be attributed to delayed body clocks, for others it can simply be a symptom of a disrupted sleep pattern, she believes.

"It's a mixture of a behavioural shift and also a hormonal shift which causes the jetlag.

"Adolescents are a sleepy group because of hormonal changes but this can be exacerbated by increased weekend social activity," says Dr Crowe.

"Then, when they want to go to sleep Sunday night they're lying awake.

"The Monkseaton school initiative makes some sense because it means there's less of a difference between the week and the weekend," she says, acknowledging that it "probably does" help teenagers not to have to get up so early.

However, she doesn't agree that all teenagers automatically go through such a sleep lag.

"In some teenagers you will get a two to three-hour delay, but it is not in all children."

Could something similar to the Monkseaton initiative eventually happen in Irish schools? According to Moira Leydon, ASTI Assistant General Secretary, Education and Research, it's possible.

"I wouldn't be surprised if schools started to try a lot of innovative ideas -- there's nothing to prevent a school wanting to change their opening and closing times."


"Ideas like this are always before their time. There is a huge amount of research going on now. The whole area of neuro-science and its application to education settings means we are learning more and more about the complexity of how the brain and body interact," she says.

"Obviously as this research becomes more widely available, its ideas will percolate through into society. You would have to take account of a lot of administrative and logistical arrangements but as we go into the future it's quite likely that schools will start to change the way they organise themselves."

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