They could be yawning because I am boring. Or because I am challenging them to think deeply about Hester in The Scarlet Letter. Or they just aren’t feeling Romeo’s love for Juliet.
But I suspect they are yawning because they are tired. When I ask, some tell me that they were up well past midnight the night before completing homework. Overall, they might be averaging about six hours of sleep a night on weeknights and trying to catch up on weekends.
The data show that my students are not alone. According to a 2006 National Sleep Foundation study of adolescent sleep patterns, 65 percent of high school students do not get the recommended hours of sleep (between 8 and 9 per night). According to a statement from the American Association of Pediatrics, the effects of sleep deprivation include impairments in academic performance, memory and an increase in the prevalence of mood disorders and car crashes. Other medical sources link athletic injury to teen sleep deprivation.
Certainly, one of the main factors contributing to teenage sleep deprivation is the fact that they have to wake up crazy early to get to school. According to data culled from National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that appears on the advocacy website Start School Later, fewer than 15 percent of high school students start school at 8:30 am. More than 42 percent of them start school before 8 am, and, incredibly, about 10 percent have to arrive for class before 7:30 am.
For teenagers, these early start times couldn’t be worse, given the natural shift in their circadian rhythms, which cause them to stay up later and prevent them from falling asleep before 11 pm. Of course, many students like the ones I tutor have numerous academic, athletic and extra-curricular commitments that keep them up well past 11 pm. So even if my students wanted to go to bed at 11, they need to stay up very late to complete homework and clock even fewer hours than the recommended amount of pillow time.
But school systems, health professionals, parents and students are working to at least mitigate the problem of teen sleep deprivation. A 2014 University of Minnesota study of 9,000 students over three years and across three states concluded that there were “clear benefits for students who start school at 8:30 or later,” including better grades, less depression and fewer car crashes. The American Association of Pediatrics agrees with later start times, as do a host of school systems across the country and the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
In Newton, Massachusetts, where many of my students attend school, the school committee has embarked on a two-year study to consider moving toward later start times for the city's two high schools, both of which begin before 8 am. During the past school year, they surveyed teachers, students and parents asking them for feedback, both online and in a series of public forums. At these meetings, some of which I have attended, comments from teachers, parents and community members overwhelmingly favor shifting high school school start times to later in the morning. Of course, making these changes come with costs: financial, organizational and the impact on work schedules and extracurriculars, to name a few.
This fall, the Newton school committee will release a formal recommendation about start times, and I hope that in the near future, Newton teens can wake up later and, therefore, get more sleep. If school starts later and they are still yawning in my sessions, I might only be able to blame The Great Gatsby or me.