By Lee Burns '87, Headmaster
The Upper School students erupted with enthusiastic applause when we announced it at the end of Chapel. Middle school students gave me high fives when I walked into their art class. The grateful emails began pouring in from parents within minutes.
Many issues within schools are hotly debated, with research and compelling reasons on either side. That adolescents need more sleep, and that they perform better when they get more of it, is without dispute.
Yet most schools start their classes at times that make it very difficult for their students to get proper amounts of sleep. While educators and policy makers of course care deeply about their students and want them to thrive, they often design schedules and other elements of the school that are most comfortable, convenient and customary to the adults in the community rather than the children.
Too many students come to their schools each day sleep-deprived. Thanks to sophisticated brain research in recent years, we know that sleep isn’t just a luxury, and that sleep-deprived students aren’t simply physically tired; rather, their learning is short-circuited. During sleep, the brain is quite active, with vital neural connections being formed and others pruned. The infrastructure of the brain is being developed. Learning is being consolidated. The foundation for future learning is being set.
With a sleep-enhanced brain, students are better able to solve problems, concentrate, and retrieve and organize information. They are more creative. Their executive functioning is stronger. They are more motivated and ready to learn.
Middle and high school students need about nine hours of sleep per night to optimize their learning, growth and development. McCallie boys told me this fall that they get far less than that.
It’s not just the amount of sleep that matters, though. When they get that sleep is crucial as well. The rhythms of the teenage brain are unique, and adolescent brains generally function better a bit later in the day than early in the morning. One expert in the field noted that starting school early in the morning for teenagers is like adults starting their day around 3:00 - 4:00 am. There are biological reasons that teenagers naturally stay up later and sleep later.
Studies suggest that, in addition to significantly improved academic performance, there are other benefits to increased sleep for adolescents. It correlates with fewer car accidents, less depression and anxiety, and better physical health. Anecdotally, it seems that well-rested teens are more engaged, energized and polite. Sleep is good for their emotional and social development also. In short, sleep is important to their overall health and well-being.
Armed with a bounty of research about adolescents, sleep and performance, and guided by the question of what is best for our students, we at McCallie developed later start times for the second semester: 8:30 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursday and Fridays, and 8:55 on Wednesdays (link to Middle School schedule; link to Upper School schedule). During this semester, we will monitor and measure many academic and other metrics, with an open mind about what this might mean in the future. My hunch and hope is that, with a new schedule carefully designed to optimize their learning and development, they will flourish much more and yawn far less.