The state’s top health officer says high schoolers need to get more sleep — and if that means starting classes later statewide, so be it.
Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips, who serves as Kansas State Health Officer and is director of health for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says that adults need to do more to prevent what he calls “teenage sleep deprivation” — a mounting problem that’s becoming even more of a concern for teachers, parents and health professionals.
Surveys indicate that only 15 percent of teens get 8.5 hours of sleep each school night, he said, and even that’s short of the nine or 10 hours they should be getting to help them function at their best. Many get by with six hours or less.
“What this means is that most teenagers today — kids whose lives are filled with homework, sports, after-school activities and part-time jobs — are falling well short of the sleep their bodies require for good health and full enjoyment of life,” Eberhart-Phillips said recently. “Some kids get so little sleep they might best be described as walking zombies.”
Part of the solution, he said: Work with school districts to push back start times at high schools.
When districts elsewhere have implemented later start times, he said, their students have responded with “improved motivation, better class attendance, heightened academic performance, fewer incidents of misbehavior and greater overall alertness.
“With all that we know now about the importance of teens getting enough sleep, it may be time for Kansas educators to consider seriously the benefits of an 8:30 a.m. start time in high schools around the state.”
The formal school day starts at 8:05 a.m. at Lawrence and Free State high schools in Lawrence, but some students get a head start on their days by taking “zero hour” courses, which begin at 7 a.m.
At Free State, about 25 percent of students “take advantage” of zero hour, said Ted Berard, associate vice principal. The move is particularly advantageous for juniors and seniors, who can finish their school days early by leaving after fifth period — or stick around for a sixth, if desired.
Zero hour is optional. Students who enroll in such early courses may do so to help fit in after-school employment or activities.
Besides, Berard said, he hasn’t seen any particular reason to change the schedule.
“By and large, I think you’d find they’re pretty alert and ready to get after it,” Berard said. “We observe how the kids do here at school, and they seem to do pretty well.”
Beginning the school day later could be problematic for a number of scheduling reasons, Berard said. “There’s talk about time students might be away from class time to be at athletic events and that type of thing,” he said.
But evidence increasingly shows that “sleep-deprived” teens suffer problems related to attention, memory and control of inappropriate behavior, Eberhart-Phillips said.
“As a group, drowsy teens are more likely to underperform in school, to drive recklessly on the street and to miss out on getting the exercise they need to avoid obesity and other health problems,” he said.