Commentary: Starting school later is key to solving sleep problem faced by Singapore students

Commentary: Starting school later is key to solving sleep problem faced by Singapore students

The move by Nanyang Girls' High to start school later helps adolescents get appropriate rest, argue Duke-NUS Medical School experts involved in the initiative.

The self-reported increase in sleep duration was, on average, around 20 minutes.

SINGAPORE: Channel NewsAsia recently published an article featuring the move by Nanyang Girls’ High School (NYGH) to a later school start time. As the researchers involved in this initiative, we have been following the response to this article on social media with interest. 

Feedback from the public seems to be largely positive, but there have also been concerns raised about the potential costs of starting school later. Our team is not blind to these challenges and we would like to share why we believe that starting school later is advisable in spite of them.

STUDENTS SHOULD GET APPROPRIATE AMOUNT OF SLEEP

Sleep is important for health and from the responses to the article, it seems that most readers agree with this. However, it has become the accepted norm for students to get insufficient sleep on weekdays and try to catch up on sleep on weekends. A common belief is that these cycles of short weekday and long weekend sleep will average out to a healthy and recommended amount. 

We disagree. Research indicates that sleep is like food: It is needed every day and in appropriate amounts for healthy functioning. Health professionals have recommendations for daily nutritional requirements and many parents do their best to ensure that their children get three balanced meals a day.

We might think it odd to allow children to skip a meal a day on weekdays and then make up for it by eating double the amount on weekends. And yet, this is what we expect of our students when it comes to sleep. We expect that they should be able to function optimally on an imbalanced “diet” of inadequate sleep on school nights and oversleep on weekends.

Some may subscribe to the idea that sleep restriction builds resilience. Again, we could not disagree more. Sleep loss does not confer the same kinds of benefits as exercise, where the mantra goes “no pain no gain”. It is not like willpower or discipline, where the more you train and push your boundaries, the stronger you become. We do not consider starving our children to make them more resilient, or worry that giving them their daily nutritional requirement every day is pampering them. Why should we think differently about sleep?

With their current sleep patterns, our students do get by in school and some may argue: If it isn’t broken, why fix it? However, we believe that students should be flourishing and not merely getting by. Research shows that getting the appropriate amount of sleep not only helps students feel better, but also helps them learn better - a win-win situation.

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There are also those who are not genetically predisposed to function well without sleep. These individuals will certainly accomplish more if they are not struggling to stay awake most of the time and if they have better psychological and emotional health.

ADOLESCENTS CAN FIND IT DIFFICULT TO FALL ASLEEP EARLIER

Some have questioned: Instead of starting school later, why not just get students to sleep earlier? The answer to this lies in our circadian biology. The human body is governed by processes that regulate when we fall asleep (or feel sleepy) and when we wake up (or feel alert).

Research has shown that during adolescence, changes occur that gradually push the human body clock back by several hours. This means that while younger children have less trouble falling asleep earlier at night, many adolescents can find it difficult to fall asleep before 11pm.

Think about the last time you had jet lag and were trying to fall asleep when your body was telling you to stay awake. Telling adolescents to go to bed earlier is putting them through a version of that experience every single day.

Starting school later is only one part of the solution to the sleep problem faced by Singapore students. Others, which we are also working toward, include instilling good sleep habits and encouraging proper time management.

However, because of our circadian biology, starting school later remains a cornerstone of that solution.

Even in the ideal situation of good sleep habits, or even reduced workload, as some readers have suggested, most teenagers would still only be able to fall asleep around 11pm. They should therefore only wake up after 7am to get at least eight hours of sleep, which is the minimum recommended sleep duration for their age.

Yet, unless students only take 30 minutes to get ready and make their way to school, there is no way that students can get those eight hours of sleep if school starts at 7.30am.

ADJUSTMENTS AND COMPROMISE NECESSARY TO MAKE LATER SCHOOL START TIMES A REALITY 

Starting school later will come with its challenges. One of the biggest concerns that has been raised is that there will be more traffic congestion because the school crowd will collide with the work crowd.

This is a difficult problem, but not an insurmountable one. Innovative ways to relieve rush-hour congestion already exist and will continue to be developed. For example, Schoolber is a ride-sharing platform that provides carpooling for students.

Adjustments and compromise will be necessary to make later school start times a reality.

The change we envisage will not happen overnight. NYGH spent half a year in preparing to shift their start time. They went through many rounds of revising the curriculum before rolling out one that would allow school to end at around the same time without comprising curriculum coverage. 

The school re-distributed the curriculum timings, and reduced the frequency of school assembly.

They were aware of the potential impact on transport, so they surveyed their students to understand their transport situation and concerns. The school also monitored local traffic conditions before the change to determine how much of a delay would be tolerable.

In short, NYGH spent significant effort to figure out how to delay school start time in the most optimal, least disruptive way.

The results from the experiment were clear: Students were happier, more alert and more positive about going to school. Isn’t this something precious, even if change is hard and will lead to short-term inconvenience?

When facing pushback against her campaign for healthier school cafeteria lunches, Michelle Obama had this to say: “Don’t play with our children. Don’t do it.” We urge teachers, parents and stakeholders to come forward and say the same.

Julian Lim is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Medical School. Lee Su Mei is a postdoctoral fellow at the same centre.

Source: CNA/sl