While walking through the halls of Jarvis Collegiate during the morning, I see many students with their eyes half open, walking with a slow, tired pace, and with coffee in their hands. Often times when looking around in class, I notice one or two of my peers with their heads on their desks, sleeping while the teacher delivers his or her lesson. The words “I’m so tired!” seems to be a common phrase among Jarvisites. So, the big question is: why does school start so early?
Perhaps it’s because the school hours are set up to accommodate the adult – and not the teenage – lifestyle. Adults tend to sleep and wake up earlier, which is why most businesses are open at early hours. Looking back at the days of kindergarten, school was arranged in such a way that the teachers would take care of the children while their parents were at work, and hence the approximate time frame of 9:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. But in the case of high school, such hours don’t seem to accommodate the needs of students.
Research conducted by TeensHealth, an organization that studies the medical, emotional, and developmental issues of teenagers, shows that during the teen years, the body’s circadian rhythm (an internal biological sleep clock) changes, making most adolescents feel the need to sleep and wake up later. This is in contrast to adults and kids, whose bodies tell them to sleep and wake up earlier. The hormone responsible for this change in circadian rhythm is called melatonin, which regulates sleeping and waking patterns. Melatonin is produced earlier in the evening for adults and kids, but late at night for teenagers, making it difficult for adolescents to fall asleep early.
According to Mr. Bartha, a guidance counsellor at Jarvis, hormones aren’t the only reason why students are up at night. “Society encourages people to stay up late. All the best TV shows are on at night. Outdoor entertainment and social activities don’t start until very late, either.”
According to Jeremy Jacob, a Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (a sleep technician) who works at the Centre of Sleep and Chronobiology, “Research shows that teenagers are supposed to get about nine to ten hours of sleep per night. I’ve even heard ten and a half.” Sadly, however, a lot of teenagers aren’t getting that recommended amount of sleep as a result of having to wake up early for school. The results of a survey conducted among 100 Jarvisites from grades 9 to 12 reveal that 85% of students are getting fewer than 9 hours of sleep per school night.
Research has also shown that there is a direct link between lack of sleep and one’s ability to learn. “Certain types of learning – in order to be consolidated effectively, meaning stored and locked in one’s brain – requires certain stages of sleep. If you’re sleeping less, you’re not going to get enough of those stages. Thus, the amount of consolidation that’s going to happen will be less compared to somebody who gets a full nine or ten hours of sleep,” says Jacob. This may explain why 66% of Jarvis students say that their academic performance is low as a result of being too tired from waking up early for school.
Having said all this, it’s not surprising that 82% of Jarvisites surveyed feel that school should start later. Most students (55%) think that a reasonable start time would fall within the range of 10:00 A.M. to 10:30 A.M. “I’d love for school to start at 10 o’clock,” says Jessica Yam, a Grade 11 student. “On Wednesdays [when we don’t have to come in until 9:50], I feel so much more energetic at school. That extra hour of sleep really does something,” she says.
Some Grade 12 students even choose to have a Period A or B spare just to get more sleep. Among them is Andrew Stewart, who says, “Having a Period A spare is great. I feel the most productive and energetic on the days I get to sleep in.” He continues, “If school were to start later all the time, my attitude towards having to go to class would be a lot more positive.”
But there are a few downsides to a later school start.
As well, many students have after-school commitments that would conflict with later school hours. Ms. Ancans, an English teacher at Jarvis, says, “If you start messing with the schedules, now you’re infringing on the employment sector. Many companies rely on students for part-time work and many students rely on part-time work to help their family or to get the extra money their parents won’t or can’t give them. You will not find many students willing to give that work up.”
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that a later start time would be a great advantage for many students. According to Mr. Bartha, “A later start time would absolutely benefit students in terms of their performance, achievement, overall health, mood, etc. If that was the system, that would be great but, unfortunately, that’s not how it is.”
However, there is an option for students who seriously can’t get themselves to school early. According to Laura Crane, the Continuous Intake Co-op Teacher for the Toronto District School Board, there are alternative schools in Toronto that allow students to “take fewer courses at a time, in shorter sections.” This would ultimately provide students with more flexible school hours to better suit their needs.
These alternative schools show promise that the TDSB is starting to accommodate and recognize the sleep needs of teens. But even so, more has to be done to ensure that all high schools operate during a time frame that is convenient for students. As Gloria Lui, a Grade 12 Jarvis student puts it, “I think that if the education system really does value the needs of students, then it’s about time that the hours work in our favour.”