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A later school start trial for adolescent night owls

News and Views

A later school start trial for adolescent night owls

News and Views

Julia Harrington, Headmistress, Queen Anne’s Secondary School, Berkshire, UK & CEO of BrainCanDo


There is a growing amount of research on the power of sleep for the optimisation of health and performance in adolescents. An article published in 2016 in Sleep Medicine Reviews highlighted some of the impacts that instituting a later start time has had in other schools and we wanted to try it with our sixth-form pupils (Minges & Redeker, 2016). The greatest shift in biological rhythms (i.e. going to sleep later, waking up later, and having higher performance levels later in the day) are often found in older adolescents. Therefore, we chose to work with our year one sixth-form pupils. We understood that the change in the sleep/wake cycle often means that adolescents do not feel sleepy until much later in the evening. This later sleep time then has an impact on how much sleep they are getting in any one night. If we push back the school start time from 8:35 am until 10.00 am, this would provide an opportunity for our pupils to fall asleep at a time when they feel naturally tired and to wake more naturally once they have had enough sleep rather than rely on alarm clocks.

For one week in June 2018 we shifted the timetable for our year one sixth-form pupils. All of the same lessons still took place during that week but they were scheduled to happen at later times throughout the day, such as lunchtimes and others to slots after school. All teaching was finished by 6:15 pm. In effect, this meant that our pupils did not need to arrive in school until much later. For the boarding pupils, breakfast was served at the later time of 9:15 am. We compared this to the control group who started at 8:35 am. They completed the surveys and tasks a week before and a week after the late-start week.

Anecdotally, staff in the boarding house reported that the pupils generally seemed happier and more alert throughout late-start week. Teachers also reported that pupils seemed to be more attentive in their lessons. We also worked with Fran Knight, a sleep expert at the Institute of Education of University College London to help us to measure the impact of this later start time on our pupils. Analysis of the data collected by Knight revealed that during the late-start pupils gained an extra one hour of sleep per night on average (they slept an average of 8 hours per night) and more pupils reported that they were able to wake up without an alarm clock. We also found an improvement in their attention and ability to control impulses, such as interjecting thoughts during a lesson, compared with a typical start time.

While conducting the trial, we also wanted to raise awareness among our pupils about the importance of good sleep hygiene. Sleep experts Nicola Barclay from the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford University and Fran Knight, University College London delivered a lecture for all of our pupils and parents about sleep and the teenage brain. The talk included an explanation of the shifting biological rhythms in adolescence, the impact this has on the sleep/wake cycle and what teenagers could do to practice good sleep hygiene.

All of the staff within the school were extremely supportive of this initiative, from the senior leadership team, parents and pupils through to the teachers who willingly gave up lunchtimes or stayed until later in the evening. We would certainly recommend this practice to other schools, even for a one week trial to highlight the importance of sleep hygiene to pupils. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One of the advantages of doing the late-start week is that this provided a platform for us as a school to really raise awareness of the vital role that sleep plays in a range of functions including memory consolidation and learning. We were able to use evidence to really highlight issues around developing good sleep hygiene. The findings from the week have given us much food for thought.

References

Minges KE & Redeker N (2016). Delayed school start times and adolescent sleep: A systematic review of the experimental evidence. Sleep Medicine Reviews 28, 86-95.

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