Independent Schools Examine Ways to Support Students’ Sleep

Fall 2015

By Sarah Stewart

Two-thirds of high school students get less than eight to 10 hours of sleep per night according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sleep deprivation in teens has been linked to poor academic performance, reduced immunity, obesity, ADD-like symptoms, and even drug and alcohol use.

For years, experts have said that early school schedules are at odds with adolescents’ natural sleeping cycles. Still, schools have been resistant to consider changing their schedules. Working parents say they need to drop their children off early and teachers worry about lost instruction time. However, in a study examining 40,000 middle and high schools, researchers from the CDC found that students who start school just 30 minutes later, at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., see significant benefits in performance, attendance, and health and well-being.
“Sleep serves all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist, said in a recent newsletter from the National Institutes of Health. “When you’re tired, you can’t function at your best. Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes, and focus better.”
A growing number of independent schools have been exploring ways to help students get more sleep or make better use of their time on and off campus. While reworking schedules poses some challenges, many schools have made the shift and are already seeing great returns.

A Later Start

Tampa Preparatory School (Florida) enrolls about 650 students in grades 6-12. Like many schools, Tampa Prep started its day around 8 a.m. before adopting a new schedule in 2012. The idea began after a group of teachers heard JoAnn Deak speak about the teenage brain at a local conference. Deak, a clinical psychologist, has worked with children and schools for 30 years and is the author of numerous books about child development.
Regarding sleep, Deak says teens biologically are unable to enter deep sleep until late in the evening or closer to midnight, so for them to get eight hours, they need to be sleeping until 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. “Any time you try to wake a teenager up before 9 a.m. you are going against their biological clock and you are going to have a hard time doing it,” says Deak.
Moreover, Deak says lack of sleep can have long-term effects on teens’ development. The brain cleanses itself during sleep, dumping information and growing, and the body is going through enormous growth during adolescence. Studies show that students who don’t get enough sleep can permanently damage their brain’s wiring.
The teachers who’d seen Deak present shared data with Tampa Prep’s Head of School Kevin Plummer, and they invited Deak to speak to the faculty and parents. After a year of research and input from the school community, Tampa Prep shifted its start time from 7:50 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. Plummer says the change has been very successful and one of many the school has taken to adjust to the demands of modern learning. Aligning the school’s schedule with current research about students’ sleep needs fits with its commitment to providing 21st century, student-centered learning, notes Plummer.
“For us, it was about improving the student experience,” says Plummer. “We were confident we could do more with our kids if they had the rest they needed. Students who are well-rested are happier, engaged, and ready for school. Tired kids don’t have a chance to engage as deeply with one another or the material. Kids who sleep enough are more successful in and outside the classroom.”
Still, Plummer admits that opposition is inevitable and that schools should approach the decision with ample education, advocacy, and transparency. Seven families said they would leave if the schedule changed, and following the change three did leave. However, many new families chose the school because of its stance. The difference among students and faculty was obvious and overwhelmingly positive. Students were happier and more productive; teachers appreciated the extra time in the morning for professional development and collaboration.
Campbell Hall School (California) changed its schedule to allow students later start times and greater flexibility in 2011. The school enrolls about 1,073 students in grades K-12. Campbell Hall Head of School Rev. Canon Julian P. Bull says the decision was driven by the current research and the school’s strong commitment to human development. “It’s part of our brand to be child-centered and attentive to the adolescent, so our leadership felt like we really needed to take this step for our students’ sake.”
Assistant Head Eileen Wasserman led the school’s efforts to rework its schedule, and after receiving input from its faculty, students, and parents, they moved the start time to 8:50 a.m. every day but Wednesday, when they start even later at 9:30 a.m. Bull says the results have been incredibly positive. “There’s a lighter feel to the school,” he says. “The kids have more energy, better moods, and a lower stress level. Teachers see the same benefits and appreciate the extra time in the morning for planning.”
Randolph School (Alabama) took a similar approach to its schedule changes, although they were originally adopted as part of a larger schedule redesign. When it opened its new upper school in 2009, Randolph moved its start time from 7:50 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. to coordinate arrival times with a neighboring public school. In 2012, the school switched to a 9:30 a.m. start time for K-12 on Wednesdays to allow students to get more sleep and to give teachers more time for professional development.
Assistant Head of School Jerry Beckman says the school has seen a marked improvement in student attendance rates, and a drop in tardiness. Also, 75 percent of high school students report they are getting nearly 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Faculty have also said they appreciate the time for planning interdisciplinary projects or learning new technologies. Parents have said the late start on Wednesdays provides a time for doctor or dental appointments.
Randolph Head of School Jay Rainey says the later start was a good decision because it’s good for families. It allows students to plan their schedules with greater flexibility and fits with the school’s institutional focus on balancing home and school life. “At Randolph, we think a whole lot about stress and balance. We try to limit homework and the number of AP courses students can take because we don’t want students overloading themselves,” he says.

Wellness in the Information Age

While some schools have made changes in their schedules, many more have added to their health and wellness curricula. Students face an academic environment more competitive than ever, pushing many to overload on advanced courses and co-curricular programs. They are also using technology for longer periods every day for communication, entertainment, and education. The combination has made time the ultimate commodity, and sleep is where many teens often sacrifice. Learning to prioritize sleep and take better care of their health can improve their school experience and academic performance.
Laurel School (Ohio) is a K-12 girls’ school with two campuses, one in Shaker Heights and one in Russell Township. Founded in 1896, the school is nationally recognized for its work in education, as well as its Center for Research on Girls (CRG).
Recently, Laurel collected survey data from students, faculty, and nearly 200 parents examining students’ sleep patterns. The school is exploring the feasibility of a later start time, while balancing the desires of families. Among other approaches, administrators are examining ways to adjust programming to reduce the time commitment girls must make in the evenings. The school has also focused on expanding its health and wellness curriculum with a greater focus on the importance of sleep and work/life balance.
Students are coached in executive functioning, time management, and the need to plan ahead for large projects or busy days. Technology use is also a hot topic as it relates to sleep. Research has shown that students who keep technology in their bedrooms sleep less. Along with the general distraction, studies show that the blue light from screens inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone needed for deep sleep. Helping parents understand adolescent sleep needs is also an important component of Laurel’s program.
“We're looking into how we can maintain high levels of academic rigor while making sure girls get enough sleep," says Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of the Center for Research on Girls. “We also saw a small correlation between students who kept technology in their room, and those who were sleeping less, so we want girls to work on the things within their control. There is a gap between how girls view technology, and the impact it’s having on their sleep.”
The Lovett School (Georgia) is also concerned about how schedules are impacting student wellness and the research about student sleep. The school enrolls 1,666 students in grades K-12. Lovett has experimented with a later start, starting at 8:45 a.m. once a month. They are evaluating a more frequent late start as part of a school-wide conversation about the daily schedule. In metro Atlanta, traffic is a huge consideration for all families. Starting school later might mean carpool coincides with rush hour traffic, an important consideration, since Lovett draws students from 68 zip codes around the metro area.
Still the school is ruling nothing out and is using design thinking to address the problem. “We are doing a lot of listening and asking a lot of questions so we can discern our most important priorities,” says Marsha Little, assistant head of school. “What’s been interesting about the design thinking process is we have a group of 12 faculty committee members in the school, and we are adamant that we are not coming in with solutions, but with questions — at least at this stage. We want to be sure we are asking the right questions, so we are solving the right problems.” The school will continue to survey students, faculty, and parents and hopes to initiate any changes in the 2017-2018 school year.
Boarding schools are often acutely aware of how the school schedule affects students. Darlington School (Georgia) is a K-12 day and boarding school. The school spends ample time on human development and work/life balance topics with its students, helping them to develop strong time management and study habits.
Darlington’s Head of School Brent Bell formerly worked at Randolph, so he’s familiar with the late start, and saw the benefits firsthand. Matthew Peer, director of Darlington’s upper school, says the negative effects of lack of sleep are easy to spot among students living on campus. The students involved in extracurricular activities like sports or drama are most at risk for lack of sleep, Peer says. Teams may be traveling for games during the week and then returning to school and staying up to finish homework.
This year Darlington added a new break during the day that it hopes will give students some breathing room. It also emphasizes how technology use can impact students sleep and work habits. The school spends a lot of time in the beginning of the year talking about technology use, and for the first month the school does not allow students to have phones during study hall so they can learn to work undistracted.
This year, the school will study its schedule with the help of a consultant and hopes to work with all community members to find a balance that is right. Parent education is also critical. “I’m in my third school and each school has had a different schedule and none have been perfect,” says Peer. “Our kids are very involved and we try to do the best job we can and it always helps to see the research and talk about the importance of sleep with our parents so they realize they shouldn’t over schedule their kids.”
Sarah Stewart

Sarah Stewart is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.