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Cepeda: One sleeper of an issue

First Published Aug 31 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 31 2014 01:01 am

CHICAGO • Many adults tend to dismiss scientific research about the adolescent mind. Perhaps they came of age during a time when children, especially teens, were expected to behave as little adults.

For years the scientific community has made clear that brains of children and young adults into their 20s undergo physical and chemical changes that can result in high-risk behaviors, vulnerability to addiction and mental illness. Still, some adults scoff at the notion that teenagers don’t have complete control over their actions.

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A similar misunderstanding of the child brain seems to be at the heart of the increasingly vocal debate over early start times for school.

Though legions of doctors, scientists and parents agree that teens’ circadian rhythms cause them to struggle with getting to sleep at night and also to awaken early in the morning, many people believe school hours should not be adjusted to these physical needs.

Take this sentiment, found on a debate.org thread on school starting times: "Kids in school don’t need to learn the day starts when they’re ready for it, that promotes laziness. They need to learn you need to be ready to go early in the morning if you’re going to be functional in this world."

I’ll admit that long before I became the mother of teens, I too believed there was some truth to the notion that you shouldn’t coddle Type B-personality kids because in our always-on, global workplace, it’s the Type A youngsters who stand a better chance of succeeding.

But the science makes a compelling argument against mere personal responsibility in waking early. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just issued a policy statement calling on middle and high schools to shift their schedules to accommodate teen biology.

"Getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. — and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day," said the AAP, noting that the sleep rhythms of adolescents can shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.

"Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today," said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement.

The AAP cited research showing that kids who don’t get enough sleep are at risk of being overweight and suffering depression. Those who do get adequate rest are less likely to "be involved in car accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life."

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Also true is that school isn’t the only culprit in the sleep wars.

A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights, making them both chronically sleep-deprived and pathologically sleepy.

But how much of the sleeplessness is because so many children have text-, video- and email-enabled smartphones that buzz, beep and chime deep into the night? School hour adjustments won’t cure this.

Still, I have pity.

When children are little, they wake up at the crack of dawn bursting to play, run and learn. Sleep-deprived parents vow to deprive them of their morning slumber someday. I know I did.

But today many kids are overburdened with college-application-boosting extracurricular activities — or jobs that help support the family — and are up late doing homework or helping around the house. When they dutifully get up at 6 a.m., as mine do, you have to wonder how adults would feel if all business hours started at 7 a.m.

There are many reasons to leave school schedules alone: parents’ work commutes, sports schedules, and after-school job commitments. But let’s not be opposed to it solely on the thin assumption that making mornings more bearable will breed laziness or teach anyone to be lax about their adult responsibilities.

Let the kids sleep.

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