September 11, 2012

Our View: Teenage brain chemistry calls for a later school start

It's not your imagination: Teenagers tend to be too sleepy to learn when they arrive at school.

If there were a new educational program likely to boost test scores, reduce absenteeism and generally make high school a more productive experience, school boards would be ready to jump on.

Well, there is such a program, only its one that's delivered by a bus driver, not a teacher. Research consistently finds that teenagers don't function at top speed early in the morning.

It's a finding that any parent of a teen can confirm: They sleep when they should be awake, they are awake when they should be asleep and they eat constantly.

This, it turns out is not just a result of young rebels pushing the envelope of social norms. It's all about brain chemistry.

A hormone called melatonin maintains our internal clocks, known as the circadian rhythm. Scientists say that darkness triggers the release of melatonin into the brain of young children and adults, making them sleepy in the evening. Teenagers don't get their melatonin drop until almost midnight.

And they need at least nine hours of sleep to get the rest their growing bodies need.

When the school bus rolls around in the early morning, their bodies may be on board,, but their minds are still in dreamland.

Finley Edwards, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Colby College, has documented an improvement in test scores in North Carolina schools that moved the start of the day from 7:30 to 8:30.

Some Maine high schools have tried this and received good results. But others are cautious because of the effect the new schedule would have on after school employment and sports.

Those are valid concerns, but shouldn't trump optimum classroom learning. As a state, Maine should consider a later start for all public high schools.


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