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In a different time zone

| April 6, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Gavin Thomson

Many of us are familiar with jet lag and the debilitating impact it has on the human clock.

The associated adjustments are disconcerting as one battles fatigue while others are wide awake and vice-versa. On a daily basis, teachers in secondary schools deal with pupils experiencing their own kind of jet lag – characterised by drowsiness, inattention and lack of energy.

Most adolescents sleep deprived
Sleep is a necessity for cell repair, for body tissue to refresh and for the brain to engage in maintenance. Sleep is the time when nerve cells are at their most active,  hardwiring in the day’s learning Binks, 1999). Children who are sleep  deprived after learning new information are unable to process and use that information as competently as children who are not sleep deprived (Nunley, 1999). Research has shown that the average high school pupil needs eight-and-ahalf to nine hours of sleep per night to be optimally effective in class and on the sports field (Wolfson, 2007).

There is also strong evidence that melatonin onset occurs later in the day for adolescents, making it difficult for them to go to sleep earlier at night. This hormone turns off later in the mornings, making it harder for them to wake up early (Carskadon et al, 1998, 1999). This is certainly the practical experience of parents with teenage sons and daughters. Traffic congestion demands that children are woken before 06:00 in the morning to get to school on time, thus overriding the brain’s rejuvenation process. We are certainly not doing our teenagers any favours by disrupting their sleep patterns with a wake-up alarm or the early morning ringing of bells in dormitories.

An interesting laboratory test on adolescents by Dinges revealed that five days with six hours sleep per night resulted in their learning function being equivalent to one night without any sleep. His research showed a significant, adverse change in the learning curve associated with sleep loss. With eight hours of sleep a night, subjects get better and better at assigned tasks. With six hours of sleep, the learning curve is gone, and with four hours of sleep, the negative impact on learning is simply disastrous. Research shows that learning itself – that is, the ability to acquire information, retain it and then use it repeatedly – is attenuated by sleep restriction (Dinges et al, 1997). Certainly, adults are aware of the grumpiness, short-tempered and disrespectful attitudes that manifest in sleep-deprived teenagers.

Hilton giving students more sleep time
Given these findings, Hilton College has embarked on a daily timetable that better manages the pupils at our school. Contrary to the statement that ‘the early bird catches the worm’, we have decided to implement a shift in our clock to a later start in the morning. Being an all-boarding environment has aided this swing to an extended sleep period. Obviously this has met with much support from the pupils, who were involved in the decision-making process, along with strong constructive debate amongst

We now provide a nine-hour period of sleep for Grades 10, 11 and 12, with Grade 8 and 9 pupils having 10 hours at their disposal. The first lesson starts at 08:30 every morning, with a tea break after three periods and the first lunch session being served at 13:50. Sport remains unchanged from 15:00 to 17:00, but the evening programme is changed to incorporate longer prep sessions and a flexible period of choice, during which boys will be involved in co-curricular activities. We are seeking more effective management of our pupils and staff to improve productivity and innovation. Operating in a different ‘time zone’ is about appropriately and practically applying the latest research on how the adolescent brain and circadian system works. Perhaps this will prove that for years we have been ‘getting it all wrong’ in the education of adolescents. It is an exciting and adventurous step into a ‘time warp’ – we wait expectantly to see what the future holds.

Gavin Thomson is Headmaster of Hilton College.

Binks et al. (May 1999) Sleep, Vol. 22(3), pp. 328-334. Carskadon, M. et al (1998) ‘Circadian Timing and Sleepiness at a Transition to Early School Days’, Sleep Vol. 21(8), pp. 871-881. Carskadon, M. et al (1999) Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 260, pp. 129-132. Dinges, D. et al (1997) Neurobehavioural Effects of Chronic Sleep Restrictions. Graham, G. (ed.) (2000) Sleep Needs, Patterns and Difficulties of Adolescents, Summary of a Workshop. Nunley, K. (1999) Brain Biology and Layered Curriculum Articles. Wolfson, A.R. (1998) Child Development, Vol. 69(4), pp. 875-887. Wolfson, A.R. (2007) ‘Adolescent Sleep Update’, Sleep Review, The Journal for Sleep Specialists, available at: (accessed 10 November 2010).


Category: Autumn 2011, Featured Articles

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