A lesson in sleep
Schools begin to educate teens, parents about the importance of sleep, but changing school start times an uphill battle
Three local high schools are beginning to look at the significance of sleep for teens as part of the fight against stress.
Gunn High School has held two full assemblies to educate students about their need for adequate sleep.
A member of Palo Alto High School's Site Council has been lobbying for more than a year to move school start times almost an hour later, to 8:45 a.m.
Menlo-Atherton High School has conducted a sleep study that showed three out of four students are sleepy in their first class and 44 percent doze off at least once a week in class.
Palo Alto High School parent Melinda McGee says sleep deprivation is a main contributor to many of the challenges today's adolescents face.
"There's a whole smorgasbord of reasons to make a change," she said. "There's a domino effect that goes along with not getting enough sleep, from minor health problems to major crises like suicide."
The current school schedule doesn't allow students to get the sleep they need, and no one seems to be making a concentrated effort to change the situation, she said.
"If our kids weren't getting enough food, we'd make sure they were fed, and this is equally as important," she said. "They're starving for sleep."
McGee feels her pleas to the Paly administration have been largely ignored, despite its stated commitment to student health.
"I have experienced chronic frustration in dealing with the Palo Alto schools," she said.
McGee wishes others would realize the importance of teen sleep and add their support. As a working parent, there is only so much she can do on her own, she said.
"Without the leadership on this issue, it's pretty much dead in the water," she said.
The community does seem to be slowly waking up to the connection between adolescent stress and sleep, however. In April, Gunn held two all-school assemblies addressing how sleep needs affect teenage behavior.
Menlo-Atherton parent Eileen Van Rheenen teamed up with a sleep scientist to bring sleep awareness to the entire school community.
Van Rheenen, the mother of a sophomore, has spent 18 years in health promotion and disease prevention. She became attuned to the teen-sleep situation five years ago when her second-youngest daughter started high school and had to wake up an hour earlier each morning.
"This is really incompatible," she said. "What happens to teens' bodies and their schedules is on a diverging path. What will it take to get us to look at the science?"
She later met nationally known sleep researcher Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., at Stanford University, where her older daughter and his son were starting as freshmen.
"Dr. Rosekind was somebody in the trenches, as he put it, trying to make the sleep thing an issue in high schools," Van Rheenen said.
Together they planned the mass education of M-A, where Van Rheenen had been trying to alert the administration about the importance of student sleep.
"The more constituencies in an organization that you can educate, the more success you'll have in the message," she said. "They just build on each other."
The scope of the project made it an unprecedented effort to increase school awareness.
"Nobody has ever done this in a school quite so comprehensively," Rosekind said.
He gave presentations to both the school faculty and the PTA, but the most important part of the project was reaching students themselves.
"It's so important that kids are armed with enough data and information about how sleep affects everyday things in life: performance, depression, ADHD and sports," Van Rheenen said.
To do that, she called upon the help of students from Stanford University enrolled in a "Sleep and Dreams" class taught by leading sleep scientist William C. Dement, Ph.D.
Cheri Mah, the class's head teaching assistant, worked with university students to develop 30-minute presentations they would make at Menlo-Atherton.
She said the 125 Stanford students were eager "to go back to their high school years and convey the knowledge that they had gained from the course."
The Stanford teams made 61 presentations to individual classes, educating the school's entire student population about basic sleep principles.
"We did it in one big blast," Van Rheenen said.
Rosekind and Van Rheenen also put together two surveys Menlo-Atherton students filled out before and after they watched the presentations to gauge how much they had learned and how much sleep they actually got.
They asked about general sleep patterns, environmental factors that might limit sleep and attitudes toward sleep. The surveys also tested basic knowledge about sleep and safety.
The results revealed that on weekdays, the average Menlo-Atherton student slept 7.5 hours a night -- well short of the 9.5 hours sleep researchers say adolescents require -- and finished the week with an accumulated sleep debt of 8.6 hours. Only one of four students reported being alert in morning classes, and most said homework was the main thing keeping them up at night.
Three out of four students did not consider sleep to be a high priority, but 83 percent said they were "likely to do something different based on the education."
Van Rheenen sees the project as a major step towards raising a more aware and health-conscious student population.
"We're just on the rise of adopting change in our culture, and I hope that M-A will be one of the leaders," she said. But there is still much to be done.
"We're now in the phase of next steps: What's in the future?" she added. "What is the personal responsibility on the part of the students and their families? What's the organizational responsibility the school has?"
Now she is a member of a committee that will look at student-health issues and work with students to recommend possible policy changes. Van Rheenen hopes the administration will eventually think about pushing back start times.
"If you had a kid sleeping 20 minutes longer a morning, you could be making up some of that sleep debt in even minor alterations," she said.
Editorial Intern Thea Lamkin-Carughi can be e-mailed at email@example.com.