RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Those with teenagers in the house have most likely experienced the conflicts between the need for sleep and the need to wake up in time for school. As part of our Education and Health poll, we inquired about school start times.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Parents of teenagers, and I include myself in this group, face a lot of challenges that we never fully anticipated. Take for instance, the role of family timekeeper. Many of us become the morning nudger-in-chief, coaxing grumpy, surly teens out of bed before the sun comes up.
Mom Christina Sevin knows the drill. Her 15-year-old son Isaac's first alarm goes off at 6:05 a.m.
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AUBREY: And when he sleeps right through this alarm, Cristina starts the nudging.
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ISAAC SEVIN: Hey.
CHRISTINA SEVIN: Hey Isaac, are you up?
AUBREY: Cristina scrambles to get the coffee going and make a quick breakfast, and she's also tried to wake up her other teenager, 16-year-old Lilly.
SEVIN: I hear footsteps, so I think one of them is up.
AUBREY: It's Isaac.
SEVIN: It's 6:14 and really dark.
AUBREY: Inside Lilly's room, the lights are on, but she's groggy.
LILY SEVIN: Yeah?
SEVIN: You got it to get up.
AUBREY: School starts at 7:17 each morning, and they need to be out the door for the bus by 6:35.
SEVIN: I wish I didn't have to be awake right now. It's 6:22.
AUBREY: She barely has time to wash her face and brush her teeth. As she grabs a big to-go cup of black tea, she says, why, why can't school start later?
SEVIN: Yeah, I think even just an hour.
AUBREY: Lilly Sevin is not alone. Our poll found that about half of parents of high school students report a start time before 8 a.m., and almost one-in-five families report school starting even earlier, before 7:30.
And, according to Lilly, this just makes life hard.
SEVIN: I can't really function until sun goes down. I feel like with homework and all that stuff, and then that carries over till like at least 11.
AUBREY: Or midnight. Sometimes it's one or two. So like many high-schoolers, she's not getting anywhere close to the eight or nine hours of sleep she needs.
Judith Owens of Children's National Medical Center knows this problem all too well.
JUDITH OWENS: I'm not at all surprised. That's a very common scenario.
AUBREY: And there's good reason. Owens says, beginning in puberty, the biological clock starts to shift, making it harder for teens to fall asleep at what parents consider a reasonable time.
OWENS: Adolescents are basically programmed to fall asleep at about 11 p.m. or later.
AUBREY: So, waking teens for school at 6 a.m.? Owens says it makes no sense.
OWENS: We are actually asking them to be awake and alert and awake at the time in their 24 hour clock when their alertness level is at their very lowest.
AUBREY: So what to do? Well, lots of families, including Lilly and Isaac Sevin's, are getting involved in campaigns to change school start times.
One petition promotes legislation that would prevent public school from starting before 8 a.m. It has thousands of signatures from people in all 50 states.
Owens says, there would likely be multiple benefits from starting school later. Take for instance, teenage car crashes.
OWENS: Drowsy driving is a huge concern.
AUBREY: She points to a school district in Kentucky where the high school start time was changed to begin one hour later in the morning.
OWENS: And they found after the change the percentage of students involved in drowsy driving crashes went down by 16 percent.
AUBREY: Compared to previous years.
Owens says teens who sleep in a bit later might be less grumpy and more alert in school. She also points to another potential benefit. A National Sleep Foundation poll that found adolescents who got the least sleep were more likely to struggle emotionally. They reported...
OWENS: Symptoms of depression, more negative emotions, more hopelessness about the future.
AUBREY: And now, after years of debate over all the obstacles to changing school start times - from disruptions in bus schedules, to after-school care and sports practice - advocates say momentum for change is starting to build.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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