Sleepy Students

By Riley Cappelletti

Every morning, the Manlius Pebble Hill Student Lounge is full of sleepy teens who wish they could have slept in a bit longer. Students snooze on the old church pews. Members of the senior class even created a makeshift bed by pushing two of the pews together.

A big velvet pillow decorates that bed, and students doze on it at all times of the day. Students fight for time on the bed, as it is the comfiest spot to sneak in a power nap before class. If the bed is in use, students find other places to slumber, like the big blue beanbags in the corner of the library.

For the busy high-school students of MPH, anywhere works if they’re able to catch a few Z’s before class.

MPH students aren’t the only ones craving more sleep; teens everywhere are tired.

According to The National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 85 percent of teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep, which is eight to 10 hours per night. This can have negative effects on teen health. A 2006 poll by the NSF found that a lack of sleep corresponded with higher depression rates in teens, and as a result the students with the higher depression rates had trouble falling and staying asleep.

Students also reported falling asleep at inopportune moments, not only in class but behind the wheel, leading to an increase in car accidents. The NSF states that a brain that is hungry for sleep will get it, even when it’s least expected.

The Child Mind Institute described the problem as a vicious cycle — lack of sleep affects mood, and depression can then lead to lack of sleep.

With busy schedules and basic biology working against them, it’s a struggle for teens to get good sleep. And then, their alarms ring early in the morning for school, which often starts as early as 7:30 a.m.

MPH Director of Counseling Joy Strickland knows the effect early school start times have on teens.

“I know that for teenagers [starting school so early] is a huge detriment to their sleep cycles, and as a result leads to high anxiety and stress,” Strickland said.

Fitting everything into 24 hours is a challenge, causing teens an abundance of stress. Their days are packed full with school, homework, jobs, sports, other extracurriculars and, of course, sleep. Some days the only way to fit it all in is to give up sleep.

“Their brains need to rest,” said Christine Civello, MPH’s school nurse. “And I think a lot of high-school students, middle-school students too, have so much pressure.”

This pressure comes from all the activities teens are forced to fit in. Teens need to rest after being so busy and dealing with this pressure.  

MPH Upper School students took two surveys from the Pebble. The first asked a series of questions which determined whether or not students are sleep-deprived. The second asked students questions how much sleep they get on a typical school night. Our results mirrored the national averages — the Pebble found that 84 percent of respondents are sleep-deprived, and that 84 percent of students get 8 or less hours of sleep per night.

“We are a nation of sleep-deprived zombies,” said MPH Head of School Jim Dunaway via email, “and it starts, for most people, in high school and college.”

As a parent and an educator, Dunaway has seen the effects of sleepy teens firsthand; he said students he taught first thing in the morning were less present, less engaged, less productive and less bright.

“Given what we now know about the brain’s development, I am aware that most adolescents are not at their best early in the day,” Dunaway said.

Senior Louisa Morrow has experienced this with her own schoolwork. Morrow said she does worse on quizzes if they are first block as opposed to later in the day.

The Children, Youth, & Families Office of the American Psychological Association says a lack of sleep in teens can lead to many problems, such as lack of information retention and cognition, increase in student behavior and classroom conflict, increase in attendance issues and increase in variance of moods.

Senior Will Kovarik said he starts his mornings around 6 a.m., practicing violin and finishing his homework from the previous night before going to school. After school, he goes to play rehearsal or soccer practice, and he gets home around 6 or 7 p.m.

When I get home I typically eat dinner, take a shower, procrastinate a little and then go to bed at about 9:30,” he said.

Kovarik drinks caffeine throughout the day. He is often seen carrying around a travel mug or a paper coffee cup from Bruegger’s.

Senior Will Kovarik holding his travel coffee mug.

Kovarik is not the only one. Thirty-two percent of MPH Upper School students said they drink caffeine purchased off-campus throughout the day to stay awake.

The first survey from the Pebble, titled “Are You Sleep Deprived?” from Cornell University psychologist James Maas was given to 69 Upper School students. A preliminary question asked if students thought of themselves as sleep-deprived. Through a series of questions students were given a diagnosis on their sleep levels.

Almost 85 percent of respondents qualified as sleep-deprived based on their answers, but only about half of these students considered themselves lacking sleep.

The second survey found that 84 percent of students get eight or less hours of sleep per night — less than the recommended amount — and that 64 percent of students go to bed at 11 p.m. or later.

Studies have shown the damage sleep deprivation has on students. The amount of sleep high-school students receive is a big factor to their everyday lives and personal activities. It’s so important that the NSF calls sleep “food for the brain.”

But it isn’t always easy for teens to get to sleep early due to the changing nature of their bodies.

The hormone melatonin regulates sleep and wakefulness. As teens hit puberty, the times in which melatonin is released change, so teens’ bodies are essentially forcing them to stay up later. For teens, melatonin starts being released around 11 p.m. and continues to be released past sunrise. To compensate, teens need to sleep in later to get the necessary amount of sleep. Yet, most high schools start between 7:30 and 7:50 a.m.

The NSF says starting school later would improve teen health. Schools that have adjusted their start times have seen these benefits fewer student car accidents, an overall improvement in student grades and attendance, less student obesity, less drug use and a decrease in depression.

Locally, East Syracuse-Minoa High School changed its school starting times more than 20 years ago to better accommodate teens’ sleep needs.

Elementary schools in the ESM district start first, at either 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., the middle school starts at 8:15 a.m., and the high school starts last at 8:55 a.m. The high-school day ends at 3:20 p.m.

“I like starting school at a later time because I have more time to sleep in, and if I need to study or prepare for a presentation [or] project then the extra time in the morning helps,” said ESM senior Tori Malbone. “My mornings are never rushed because there is always enough time. I’m also able to have a better breakfast which helps me through the day.”

ESM high-school students are able to sleep in later after busy nights. However, some students come in to school early, around 8 a.m. ESM High School principal Grenardo Avellino said this is because some clubs, activities and extra courses take place before school. Having a later start time has been beneficial to the students at ESM overall, but there are still some flaws to be found in this schedule.

Avellino said the number of students late to school is not any different due to the later start time. He said six years ago when he was introduced to this schedule, it took some getting used to.

Though MPH starts a bit later than most high schools, MPH students would still love some extra time to sleep.

“I’ve noticed that yes, students are groggy in the morning,” said MPH Head of Upper School John Stegeman. “I knew that in first block I had to be more energetic to liven up the crowd.”

A study from RAND Corporation, a research and development organization, said pushing back school start times could add about $83 billion to the U.S. economy within the next decade. The study says that the boon would come from improved high-school graduation rates, which would lead to better jobs, and fewer costs associated with sleep-related car crashes, obesity and mental illness caused by sleep deprivation.

The study said if schools do make the switch, this increase in expenses should “be offset” in two years.

“Schools may need to make short-term investments,” the study said, “but the long-term upsides could be worth it.”

But there are disadvantages to later school start times. If school starts later, it ends later, impacting sports practices, games and other after-school activities. Scheduling games with schools that end earlier would be challenging.

“Being a little bit prejudiced, the earlier [we] start school, the quicker school gets over,” said MPH boys soccer coach Don Ridall. “You have more time for sports practices, especially in the late fall when it starts getting darker earlier.”

Cole and Matthew
Seniors Matthew Fortner and Cole Potter pretend to fall asleep while doing their homework. Simply stated, many MPH students don’t get enough sleep.

ESM senior Tori Malbone would agree with Ridall.

“Ending later is much harder,” she said. “Sports games usually end very late so we are usually up late doing homework. Especially if the game is far. Then it is even worse and we get home even later. But again, the later start time is helpful because when we have those long nights it’s not as harsh waking up. It is hard though because if you do sports after school there is really no time for anything else because sports end so late.”

Ridall acknowledges that because of the wiring of teens’ brains, a later school start time would make sense for teen health.

The school day at Manlius Pebble Hill School goes from 8:10 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.. Senior Aiden Meyer said, “I would say probably 9 o’clock, 9, maybe 9:30 would be good,” when talking about an ideal start time.

Meyer said the earliest he goes to bed on a school night is 11 p.m., but typically he is up until midnight, sometimes even 1 a.m. Meyer stays up late at night doing homework after participating in extracurriculars and then has to get up around 6 a.m. to make it to school on time.

As an independent school, MPH faces some issues. MPH relies heavily on public school busing to get the students to and from school. Several students at MPH have to make lengthy commutes each morning to get to school, with some students living as far as Cortland or Utica.

“It would be difficult for us to change drastically because it would mean children who live far away would have to find some other transportation,” Stegeman said.

Senior Jeffrey Bush is among the students who live far away. Living in Camillus, Bush gets up at 6 a.m. every morning.

“It generally takes me about two hours to get to school,” he said. “Not driving, but just things in total like getting ready, getting all my stuff together and then the actual commute.”

Several students have the same issue as Bush. Living far away cuts into sleep time, as it takes longer to make it to school.

But if teens like Bush aren’t getting enough sack time like they need, the school start time doesn’t matter.

“Schools could start classes as late as noon,” Dunaway said, “but if students don’t get 8 or 9 hours of sleep — what adolescents actually need — they still won’t be at their best.”