The Biology of Being a Teenager

Anyone who has taught high school can testify to the fact that most of their students were barely conscious for first period class (maybe second as well). Most of us just wrote it off to strange sleeping habits and other traits of the American teenager.

But now a researcher at Brown University thinks she’s found a chemical reason for the difference in sleep patterns from what we adults consider “normal”.

Carskadon, who teaches human behavior and is director of sleep research at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, led a team of researchers who helped prove that — biologically speaking — teenagers really are out of it early in the morning.

The researchers measured the presence of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin in teenagers’ saliva at different times of the day. They learned that the melatonin levels rise later at night than they do in children and adults — and remain at a higher level later in the morning.

Some school districts have already experimenting with starting high schools later in the morning (typically moving opening from 7:30 to 8:30 or later). Amazingly, the world did not fall apart. Even more important, neither did the football team.

Teachers [in Minnesota] reported that students were more alert, and research conducted by Wahlstrom showed a range of benefits to students and teachers — and contradicted some of the biggest fears about the change: that after-school sports and jobs would suffer.

With the later start time, teenagers were less depressed, and it turned out that employers did not have big problems with students getting out of school later, Wahlstrom said. Although student grades did not rise significantly, the trends have been upward, she said. And some sports practices were shortened, but Edina and Minneapolis teams have played just as competitively as they had before.

Around here we have another big problem with opening high schools later. Our overly large school district operates one of the country’s biggest bus fleets (they note that proudly for some reason) and rearranging the bus schedules would probably raise more screams than most changes to attendance zones.

But if the biology is valid, it makes no sense to consider all kinds of high school reforms if the kids are still going to be asleep for the first hour or more of the day.

teenage sleep, high school

2 Comments The Biology of Being a Teenager

  1. Tom Hoffman

    This is the kind of thing that truly illustrates the unreality of our discourse on improving education. From “education is our top priority” to “schools need to be more efficient,” to “improving schools doesn’t cost more money.”

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