By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
"The light! The light!" my son calls out when I wake him at 6:30 a.m. every school day. He staggers out of bed and, like Edward (that most notorious of teen vampires), dramatically shields his face as if his skin will be scorched. "Turn off the light!"
"I would turn off the light," I say, "but I can't because it's coming from a big ball in the sky that goes on and off all by itself."
I return to the kitchen and my husband asks if our son's awake yet. "That depends on what you mean by awake," I answer. Our son is walking, sort of; has dressed himself, kind of; and has brushed his teeth, we think. It's a miracle he's never brushed his teeth with hair gel, since he performs his ablutions with his eyes closed.
No choice when it comes to an early morning school start
Why the early morning torture? As millions of bleary-eyed parents can tell you – after they've had their coffee – even if their teen got his top school choice, they have no choice about when the school day begins; for our family, high school starts at 7:30 in the morning. Since my son's frequently up until 11:00 and sometimes even midnight doing homework, that means he's often getting several hours less than the recommended 8.5 to nine hours of sleep for teenagers - and certainly not enough for the parent who stays up to help him study. Frankly, even when he doesn’t have a boatload of homework, he stays up late anyway: his circadian rhythms went all cuckoo almost the day he became a teen.
The late-to-bed teen sleep cycle and the disconnect with the majority of high school start times is, if not a national crisis, a mini-crisis, one that surfaces in news' stories year after year. Yet little to nothing is done to adjust morning school hours to ensure that teens are well-rested enough to meet the mental and physical rigors of a high school day.
Teen sleep deprivation: no laughing matter
This bureaucratically enforced form of long-term sleep deprivation is near devastating to our teens.The effect on their already compromised personalities is not to be underestimated – teens being, uh, a little on edge anyway. But beyond making them - and us - crazy, the consequences can be dire. Consider this from the National Sleep Foundation's (NSF) Sleep and Teens Task Force report on driving-related injuries and deaths due to sleep deprivation.
"The most troubling consequences of sleepiness are injuries and deaths related to lapses in attention and delayed response times at critical moments, such as while driving. Drowsiness or fatigue has been identified as a principle cause in at least 100,000 police-reported traffic crashes each year, killing more than 1,500 Americans and injuring another 71,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, 1994). Young drivers age 25 or under are involved in more than one-half of fall-asleep crashes."
If that doesn't make you wake up and take notice, consider other side effects of teen sleep deprivation: hormonal imbalances, a weakened immune system, poor eating habits, and reduced mental facility. I was chagrined to see a news report that gravely announced that "sending your child to school without a good night's sleep is just like sending them to school without breakfast." It's all we can do to get our son out the door by 7:00. He's in no shape, and has little time, to sit down to a proper breakfast.
Iintractable school systems and a nation of weary teens
I've asked "Why so early?" Explanations range from the need for staggered schedules (he attends a school with a population of around 3,000 students) to a need to leave time for sports and afternoon activities.
That's why I was so thrilled to read that a petition for a later start time for Montgomery County high school students in Maryland garnered more than 4,500 signatures in 11 days. Their school starts at 7:25 a.m. and they're asking for a more civil start time of, say, 8:15 a.m. The petitioners may be facing an intractable system that cites a paucity of school buses to get everyone where they need to be as the reason school starts at the crack of dawn.
I'd start a petition of my own – get in on a movement that may be gaining traction by groups like startschoolater.net, but as a new parent at the school, I’m not sure I’m prepared to take on the system in such a big way just yet. Besides, I'm just too tired.Follow @LeslieMCrawford