Early Bird Missed the Worm


photo by Alexis Madlang

A student runs after the bus. The studnet woke up late and missed her ride to school. Digital drawing.

My sophomore year was the first time I had ever fallen asleep in class. The lights were on and the Spanish teacher was talking, but my eyelids got heavier as her words morphed into background noise. I was asleep for a couple minutes but it only felt like a few seconds until she walked by to wake me up. 

Sleep deprivation is driven by the conflict between teenagers’ biological clocks and the schedules school systems demand them to follow. Teens need at least 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and like myself, during the school year we are not getting enough. There is a strong tendency toward being a “night owl,” staying up later at night and sleeping longer into the morning. According to the Sleep Foundation, 2020, teens have a sleep drive that builds more slowly, meaning they do not start to feel tired until later in the evening. The body waits longer to start producing melatonin, which is the hormone that helps promote sleep. 

The current school schedule has high schoolers start the earliest, then elementary, then middle; but this is not the most efficient way for students to get the most sleep and perform their best. In middle school, I would wake up almost two hours before my bus came to watch TV and sit on my phone, never noticing I was as tired as I am in high school. Now, I sleep to the very last minute that I can, but never feel fully rested. No wonder my older brother took naps every day after school. 

There are several advantages for teens when they get the sleep they need, including the reduced risk of drowsy driving and less likelihood of experiencing depressed moods. According to the National Library of Medicine, 2015, lack of sleep is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness. Exaggerated tiredness can induce microsleeps, a brief episode of sleep which can last anywhere from a single fraction of a second up to 10 full seconds, or dangerous driving behavior. Furthermore, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2017 drowsy driving led to at least 91,000 crashes, resulting in roughly 50,000 injuries and 800 deaths.

The topic of changing all school start times is constantly debated among school districts from all over the country, and many schools across the nation have already made the switch. Over 20 Florida counties including Kissimmee and Volusia have changed their high school start times to be between 8 and 9:30 a.m. Elementary schools start first, then high schools, then middle school. With these schedules, schools have experienced improved student performance and savings in transportation costs. For example, when St Johns county, Florida, moved high school start times to 9:15 a.m. in 2006, it was initially to streamline bus runs and save money, but administrators also found it was better for teenagers’ health and performance . 

In 2018, a research article under the Science Advances journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows results of three different experiments that relate to later high school start times and their association with more sleep and better performance for students. They stated that the change led to over half an hour more of sleep per night. Better grades, less sleepiness, less absences and tardies from students that got more sleep. 

I used to think my peers who slept during class were irresponsible, because it would not make a difference if they were not there at all. Only when I started to accidentally fall asleep myself, I could relate to why they slept. To fix this problem, I started drinking coffee and energy drinks to stay alert, however this is not as beneficial for someone my age as it seems.

Caffeine actually has many negative side effects on teenagers. According to a Verywell Health article in 2020, effects include: restlessness, nervousness, muscle twitching periods of inexhaustibility, caffeine dependence and health consequences dealing with the heart, bones and sleep. I am not the only teen that drinks caffeinated drinks to wake up. In fact, according to a research paper in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 80% of the world’s population consumes caffeinated products every day. Among children, roughly 73% also drink caffeine. 

As a current solution to manage a better sleep schedule, many students take off their morning periods by enrolling into virtual courses. Especially during the past year, with the introduction of all virtual and hybrid classes, at-home learning is more popular. Though they get more sleep, students are set to odd schedules. Consistent daily schedules and step-by-step routines give children a predictable day. Additionally, when students are following bell schedules and transitioning from class to class, they have more productivity, similar to the productivity one gets from scheduling their work day.

Not only will students experience positive changes, but they will also see an increase in attendance, decreased tardiness, better student grades, fewer occurrences of falling asleep in class, increased mental health, decreased caffeine addiction, fewer disciplinary issues and decline of motor vehicle crashes.