No epoch in our life span is quite like adolescence. Those few years mark an inflection point for many defining characteristics — academic success, professionalism, physical fitness, mental health and a tendency toward sobriety or substance abuse. Some teenagers find inspiration and resources to propel forward to a happy and positive future. Others struggle with isolation, depression and anxiety. Most of us muddle through somewhere in the middle.
Our future capacity for discipline and resilience, our compulsions and our tempers all can be predicted by the changes taking place in our sleeping brains as teenagers. Composed of more than 100 billion evolving nerve cells, the mind remodels itself nightly. While adolescents sleep, brain connections that number in the trillions are working to master skills ranging from calculus to free throws, while emotional circuits ready themselves for unforeseeable stresses ahead.
When optimized, healthy sleep results in healthy brains. Unfortunately, after a night of poor sleep the brain not only misses out on the chance to master a foreign language but may also amplify selfish and immature behaviors in some teenage personalities.
Whether their children are sleep-deprived or not, parents often try to steer their resistant children into positive activities and peer groups. If the parents themselves are stable, mature individuals, they model healthy behaviors and suppress the urge to lash out at the impulsive cruelty of a brain still in development (Warning: Construction Zone). But ultimately parents realize that much of their children’s fate is left to chance.
But what if there were a statewide policy that recognized the physiological (not volitional) changes during adolescence and helped promote school attendance and better SAT scores while decreasing interactions with law enforcement along with substance abuse, teen pregnancies and obesity?
A statewide requirement that all secondary schools start after 8:30 a.m., as currently proposed in SF 2938 (chief sponsor, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka) and HF 3256 (chief sponsor, Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud), recognizes adolescent physiology and the importance of sleep in developing a healthy nervous system. These bills have bipartisan support with a total of five Republican and five DFL cosponsors.
It is telling that many of the supporting lawmakers are teachers. They understand that teenagers have a physiological tendency to stay up later, not because of a smoldering desire to avoid their parents and sleep in later, not because they are lazy, but because their brains are different and developing. This tendency, a delay in their circadian rhythm (the body’s innate 24-hour clock) is noted across all cultures — in fact, in all young developing mammals. Even adolescent pachyderms (elephant teenagers!) go to sleep later and wake up later than their parents.
Adolescents with sleep issues are no guiltier of their own suffering than are those who struggle with diabetes, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. They can no more change their body’s innate circadian rhythm than they can change their height or eye color.
Based on pioneering studies conducted by University of Minnesota researcher Kayla Wahlstrom, delaying high school start times is a repeatedly proven strategy that increases sleep intake, improves academic achievement and decreases behavioral problems. These interventions have been demonstrated, in both urban and rural Minnesota school districts, to improve proficiency in math and reading as well as decrease truancy, behavioral referrals, motor vehicle accidents and illicit substance use.
These improvements were achieved by recognizing sleep as important and different in adolescents. A teenager’s course work, from remedial math to algebra to English lit, becomes easier to acquire and retain. Athletes perform better with quicker reaction times. And impulses are better controlled (even in interactions with parents).
These bills represent a unique opportunity for the future of Minnesota. There has been much talk at the Legislature about creating safer schools. Why not start with an intervention whose costs are minimal and that ensures our students are starting the day at a time that is most appropriate for their teenage brains?
We can simultaneously implement evidence-based policy that readies our children for learning, decreases anxiety and helps address some of our greatest challenges: opioid use, youth violence and other risky behaviors.
So, let’s seize the moment. And afterward, we can all celebrate by taking a nap.
Michael Howell is vice chair for education in the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the Sleep Performance Institute.