Deprived of sleep, deprived of their full potential: our education system is ignoring basic science surrounding teenage biology.

Growing pains, weird hormones, sudden and awkward body changes; being a teen isn’t easy. We’ve all experienced the uncomfortable (and often woefully inadequate) sex-ed classes explaining all the fascinating and bizarre changes that the human body goes through during puberty. But were you ever taught about the changing sleep cycle the teen body goes through as it fumbles its way into adulthood?

The circadian cycle is the natural biological process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle over the course of each day. Certain hormones like cortisol, a stress hormone, are produced in the mornings to help you wake up for the day, whilst hormones like melatonin set in towards the end of the day to help your body move into a resting state for sleep. Our bodies are naturally wired to the rise and fall of the sun, which is why it is harder to sleep during the day and harder to stay awake at night.

As a child enters adolescence, their natural circadian rhythm changes. The biological desire to pass out around 9pm disappears, and suddenly teens don’t feel sleepy until at least 11pm, though many parents would attest to their teens defiantly delaying their sleep until well past midnight. The reason for this change isn’t fully understood, but some scientists speculate that when we were living in tribes, it was a way for adolescents to gain more separation from adults and learn to be more independent, and develop critical social skills amongst peers of the same age without supervision or the demands of day-to-day chores and responsibilities. In other words: the parents are asleep, let’s party!

 

The number of hours that teens need to sleep (8-10 hours) reduces slightly from their childhood (around 10-12 hours), but is still higher than the needs of adults (7-8 hours).

If a teen were to follow their biological rhythms of e.g. a 12am bed time, In order to get a full night of sleep they should be waking up between 8am and 10am. The infamous teen ‘lie in’ is often a huge cause for contention in the households of teens, but sorry parents - the kids win this round. They can’t help it - they literally cannot feel tired any earlier than their biology demands.

“But they need to get up at 7am for school!” you may cry. Yes, that’s true. But contradictorily, our schools are not looking out for the biological welfare of our teens. With most secondary schools starting at around 8-9am in the morning, we are systemically depriving our teens of their well-needed sleep. But why?

The modern world ignores our primal sleep instincts. 24/7 access to artificial lighting in our homes, city streetlights, as well as the light emitting from our electronic devices, have a huge negative impact on our natural sleep cycle, resulting in a worldwide epidemic of chronic undersleeping.

A lack of sleep significantly increases our chances of heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke, and massively reduces cognitive functioning, causing an increased risk of road accidents, poor decision making and mishaps at work (and in some industries this can be deadly - think doctors and nurses). As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, a lack of sleep can negatively impact interpersonal relationships too - and our teenage years are crucial for developing social skills. So a lack of sleep compounded with surging hormones may be making our teenagers moodier than they need to be - if they were well slept, then it might be one less cause for challenging moods and behaviours.

Scientists have been warning us about the dangers of poor sleep for decades, of course. So why hasn’t the education system, the birthplace of any biologist who researched teen body clocks in the first place, taking any serious action on this biological reality? One of the biggest reasons for school starting earlier is simply to allow parents to get their kids to school before getting themselves to their 9-5 job. An admiral timetabling attempt, but is this potentially a little obsolete these days? We discuss this in another blog.

Recently at Gaia, we’ve been supporting vulnerable children in local authority care in Birmingham to re-engage with learning. We have been building their confidence online in maths, English, science, study skills and career advice in order to prepare them to re-enter education and communities of support. We quickly realised that the first lesson of the day would be better attended if it started at 10am, and so far we’ve had positive feedback from learners, their families and the schools wanting the best for them.

Overall, it’s a highly insignificant change for us as teachers, in return for a significant boost to the health, wellbeing, productivity and potential of our teens.

Gaia is set up so that all of our courses can be taken at your own pace with the help of subject experts as often and in whatever capacity you need us. We offer 1:1 sessions, small groups, and marking and feedback of assignments submitted through our online platform. We are empowering young people to have more agency over their learning without compromising on the quality of teaching, and equipping them with skills for life, not just exams.



Lauren Brooks
Gaia English and History Tutor and Professional Singer based in Sri Lanka.