Biological Nature or Overworked Minds?

It’s 7:00 pm on a Thursday night. You’re a senior in high school and you just got home from your away game. By the time you’ve showered and eaten dinner it’s now 8:00 pm. You’ve been awake since 6:00 am and you’ll be awake again at the same time tomorrow. You have piles of homework, three different tests to study for and a long list of things to do for your college applications. By about 1:00 am you decide to call it a night, already dreading the sound of your alarm clock that’s only a short five hours away. Given a typical student’s schedule, like this one, why do we still question why teenagers are so tired all the time?

The National Sleep Foundation claims that “biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence — meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm” (National Sleep Foundation); however, Westwood High School (WHS) students and school nurse believe that students’ poor sleeping habits are a result of stress and anxiety, caused by the overwhelming work and pressure that school brings.

So how much sleep are students actually getting? WHS senior, Fiona Allan, claimed she gets “around five hours” each school night, while senior Jamie Murphy’s sleep schedule was much more diverse. Murphy shared, “Every night is different for me. Some nights it’s three [hours], others it’s eleven.” Although they are concerning, these responses are not surprising: a study from the National Sleep Foundation found that “only 15% [of teens] reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights,” when truly teens need “about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best” (NSF).

Students’ hectic schedules play a critical role in their sleep patterns, as most students have several commitments outside of their school work. Murphy, who runs varsity on cross country, and Allan, who works upwards of 20 hours a week at Panera Bread, do not return home until 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm on their busiest week days, respectively. WHS school nurse, Karen Poreda also noted, “School starts early. Students have sports, clubs and jobs, and on top of that they have homework.”

When asked what roles homework, tests and other academic demands play in a student’s sleep schedule, Poreda replied, “they definitely play a big part,” and that “sometimes anxiety about tests plays a role in this too.” She believes “anxiety prevents kids from sleep.” Correspondingly, Allan mentioned that homework and studying are the main reasons she goes to bed late. And although many people believe teenagers are just naturally inclined to fall asleep later, Poreda expressed, “I do believe their clocks are later but I think homework is the main reason kids stay up so late.”

This tremendous lack of sleep not only has students feeling exhausted, but Poreda also stated that “If you don’t get enough sleep, your memory isn’t as good and you don’t learn as well.” Allan further supported this claim when she revealed that lack of sleep makes it “harder [for her] to focus” at school. Similarly, Poreda expressed that when you are tired, “Everything seems hardened and amplified.”

The effects of sleep deprivation go far beyond the classroom. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Not getting enough sleep… is associated with several health risks including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance” (CDC). These correlations can be detrimental to both students mental and physical health.

As reported by the CDC, “One of the reasons adolescents do not get enough sleep is [due to] early school start times” (CDC). Uniquely at WHS, students who begin the school day with one or more free blocks may arrive late, free of penalization. When asked about being more, less, or equally as tired on days beginning with free periods, Allan shared that she feels less tired on days she begins with frees: “It’s way easier to done. I can focus better and I’m in a better mood” (Allan).

Many schools nationwide have transitioned to later start times in an effort to accommodate students’ busy schedules and give them the opportunity to get more sleep. Regarding whether or not a later start time would be beneficial, Poreda revealed she is “Unsure but thinks it would be worth trying.” Allan enthusiastically believed a later start time would be helpful, believing students would have more “flexibility” with when they complete their school work. Conversely, Murphy predicted that she would just go to bed later.

Clearly, lack of sleep impacts a great deal of students both inside and outside of WHS, generating a variety of negative results. Reducing some of the causes, like excessive homework and early school start times, could potentially help diminish the issue; however, there seems to be no clear-cut solution to improving the sleeping patterns of WHS students.

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