What teens really need is a change in schedule

October 25, 1998|By Susan Reimer

I AM LOATH TO give up my place at the pinnacle of martyrdom, but I must admit that there is someone out there who has a more relentless and debilitating schedule than I, a working mother of two school-aged children with an hourlong commute and a husband who travels for his job.

It is my son, the high school freshman.

I will never admit this to him - and he doesn't read the newspaper, because none of his teachers have assigned it - but his life is such an endurance contest that I am surprised he is not crabbier than he is.

My husband and I told Joe that the demands of high school were going to hit him like a brick in the nose. But we did not imagine DTC or remember - high school being this rough.

He's up every day at 5 a.m. to finish homework he was too tired to do the night before. He leaves for the bus at 6:30 a.m. and is in class by 7:15. His school day does not end until after soccer practice or games, anywhere from 5 to 6 p.m.

He is so hungry and so tired that I quickly learned not to irritate him further with my happy questions about his day.

He inhales dinner and turns without a break to three hours of homework. His younger sister, suddenly free from years of his torment, is bewildered. She thinks he moved out.

His weekends are spent sleeping, eating and doing more homework. Sunday night comes, and it all begins again.

I don't know how he does it. And I don't know why he has to.

It seems to me that school schedules are turned on their heads. Toddlers and young children, who wake at first light, begin their school day at 9 a.m.- about the time they are ready for a morning nap.

Meanwhile teen-agers, whose body clocks have undergone the hormonal equivalent of Daylight Savings Time, must be at school ready to learn in what for them is the middle of the night.

"Puberty changes the body's sleep cycle in such a way that teen-agers stay alert later at night and are sleepier in the morning," said William

Dement, a Stanford University professor and chairman of the National Sleep Foundation's Government Affairs Committee.

"This shift in their biological clocks makes it difficult for them to fall asleep early enough at night to get all the sleep they need for an early class," Dement said in congressional testimony on a bill that would have provided grant money to help high schools change starting times.

"As a consequence, many adolescents are severely sleep-deprived, which often leads to serious academic, behavioral and psychological problems as well as a greatly increased risk for accidents and injuries," Dement said.

Sending teens to bed early is not the answer. Their preprogrammed period of wakefulness, governed by the secretion of melatonin, has been pushed back to about 10:30 p.m. They will simply stare at the ceiling or wrestle with the covers.

And the final hour of dreaming, which makes you feel that you've had a good night's sleep, does not begin in teens until about 7 a.m. - about the time most of them are getting off the bus.

Schools in Minnesota have experimented with 8:30 a.m. start times and report improvements in class participation and grades and reductions in discipline problems. Administrators there were able to accommodate food-service workers, bus schedules and sports-team coaches, so this can be done.

We have all seen foggy-headedness and irritability in our teens. We think it is the age and perhaps it is.

But we'd all feel better if they had a good night's sleep.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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