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Saving Daylight and the Psychology of Learning


Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart

I was being stalked by an insect thing that was becoming furry black, tarantula-like, and I had just jumped up onto the classroom desk to escape it when I awoke, and I knew something was amiss. I grabbed my smartphone and could see I had slept an hour late. But I hadn’t. It was Daylight Savings Time. Still shaking, now coming to terms with a nightmare, and  having lost a full hour of morning time,  I turned my shaken attention to my students.

Among the unfortunate things like bank failures and wars that went on during time of the Bush, Jr. presidency, the action that foiled me the most personally was a law that for most people probably slipped through the cracks: one extra month of daylight savings time. To our well-intentioned President, this act was supposed to be a way to save energy (on light bulbs, for example), but to me, as a high school teacher, it was the biggest waste of energy conceivable.

Obviously, when you take an hour of sleep away from an entire nation, impacting over 300 million man-hours a day, some people are going to like it and others will hate it. But in this particular case, the people who hate it the most are those with arguably the least listened-to voices in the whole world: teenagers. And since I’m a high school teacher, I’d like to have a word on their behalf.

One extra hour lost in the morning and gained in the evening, the theory goes, would give our nation an extra hour where they are not burning light bulbs. That’s the theory. No matter that no research has shown this theory to work. (Everything we can find on Google shows that Daylight Savings Time brings no real, net energy gain.) But there is some relevant research on Daylight Savings that is not in the field of electricity or energy use. It’s in the fields of education and adolescent psychology, and here it is:

   For teachers and students, and most others, Daylight Savings Time wastes energy.

If any reader knows a single teen who “springs forward” or springs at all when another hour is stolen from them, let me know. Because the overwhelming research shows that, as the National Sleep Foundation reports, not only in the United States but all over the developed world, “Two in three teens were found to be severely sleep-deprived, losing two or more hours of sleep every night.”

 Though everyone’s different, it’s very hard to find any teenager who does not need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep per night. On average adolescents are found to need eight and a half to nine and a half hours each night. But in a poll taken in 2006 by the National Sleep Foundation, less than 20 percent reported getting that much rest on school nights.  A study in Fairfax, Va., found that only 6 percent of children in the 10th grade and only 3 percent in the 12th grade get the recommended amount of sleep. The causes of sleep depravation can be biological, behavioral or environmental. And the effect on the well-being of adolescents — on their health and academic potential — can be profound, according to a policy statement issued in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Insufficient sleep in adolescence increases the risks of high blood pressure and heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, said Dr. Owens, pediatric sleep specialist at Children’s National Health System in Washington. Sleeplessness is also linked to risk-taking behavior, depression and suicidal ideation, and car accidents.

“Lack of sleep can be fatal,” says Owens. “The level of impairment associated with sleep-deprived driving is equivalent to driving drunk. Would you let a kid drive who just consumed three or four beers? Well, guess what — kids do that every day.”

School start times don’t help the situation. In a 2008 study in Virginia Beach, where classes began at 7:20 to 7:25 a.m., the crash rate for 16- to 18-year-olds was 41 percent higher than in adjacent Chesapeake, Va., where school started at 8:40 to 8:45. The lead author of the study, Dr. Robert Vorona of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, suggested that starting the school day later could result in less sleep deprivation and more alert drivers.

What fascinates teachers as much as the safety issues associated with sleep deprivation are its cognitive impacts. Sleep-deprived students can still cram their short-term memories, but their creativity and sense of larger purpose and empathy goes out the window. They tend to go problem to problem, just to get to the end. They can write a formulaic, three-paragraph essay but struggle to tell a story that means something to them. In short, sleep deprivation is perfect for school systems obsessed with formulaic approaches to teaching and learning, standardized testing, and valuing grade point average above moral values, intrinsic development of life purpose, cultivation of meaningful relationships, physical fitness, and happiness—things our schools care little about measuring in their fixation on the measurement of homework and test grades. Our daylight-saving schools and their sleep-deprived teens are advancing a narrower and narrower band of thinking. And so, as Welsh author Jay Griffiths phrases it in her amazing book, Kith, “Many of today’s children may not even know how gravely they are interred indoors and may never fully understand their insidious enclosure." 1


 It is worth noting that a study of 9,000 students in eight Minnesota public high schools showed that starting school a half-hour later resulted in an hour’s more sleep a night and an increase in the students’ grade point averages and standardized test scores.

Sleep deprivation can also have a negative effect on mood. Inadequate sleep raises the risk of depression, and sleeping less than eight hours a night has been linked to a nearly threefold increased risk of suicide attempts.  Next time you’re tempted to judge a teen as rude or lazy, think about this: it’s a 50-50 shot that the teen is sleep-deprived. What are we losing here? Could a sleep-deprived Romeo have stayed up so late by the balcony?

The risk of obesity is also increased by sleep deprivation. A study in 2002 estimated that for each hour of sleep lost, the odds of an adolescent’s being obese rose by 80 percent. Fan He, an epidemiologist at Penn State University College of Medicine, found that for every hour difference in sleep on a night-to-night basis over a week, for example, teens ate 210 more calories—most of it in fat and carbohydrates. 

Many people blame the teens and say uninformed, prejudicial things like: “They should just to go to sleep earlier.” Few people saying that are teens, though. Teens don’t have much of a voice. But if their subconscious minds and exhausted bodies could express what they were going through, this is what we should hear: 

When children reach puberty, developmental changes in the prefrontal cortex appear to cause a shift in circadian rhythm, which makes it harder for them to fall asleep early enough to get the requisite number of hours and still make it to school on time. The undeniable, irrepressible stream of late night electronic messages and postings lighting up the screens of the average teen is not helping. We can “should” them all day and all night (“You should turn off your iPhone at night!”) and it will do about as much good as telling them they should turn off their drive for connection and belonging.  It’s not about laziness. The delay of the circadian phase and accompanying changes in melatonin secretion during adolescent development contribute to the delay of sleeping times in teens.

The sleep-wake cycle can shift as much as two hours during the teen years, making it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. If school starts at 8 or 8:30 (and many start an hour earlier than that), it’s nearly impossible to get enough sleep.  Anyone in the entire world who teaches middle or high schoolers will tell you that it’s completely normal for some of them to be half asleep for much of first period. And as for catching up for sleep on weekends, aside from the fact that research shows this does not work, the real impact is that it shifts the teen’s sleep-wake cycle later, making it even harder to get up on Monday morning for class.

So I would like to ask our elected officials:

How can we understand the cost of loss of concentration and productivity brought about by “daylight savings”?
Who can compute this cost and compare it to the cost of electricity, which we want to save?

Even light bulbs have come along way since the Bush years, along with our understanding of the sleep debt paid by our youths.

At our school, we surveyed students in our junior and senior classes about what it was like for them getting up, and here are some typical comments we got in reply:

            It makes it hard to eat breakfast.
            When my sleep is reduced, I’m irritable, impulsive and emotional, and I have trouble focusing.
            Typically, I get about 4-6 hours of sleep per weeknight.
            If I sleep too little I feel as if I have no motivation to do anything. I often feel moody.

We have an education problem here, not just a legislative one. Most teens do not seem to know how much sleep they need—not that they could get it even if they did. Many teens feel something beyond the impacts of time schedules, and this “something” might best be described as victimization and loss of control:

Sleep cannot effect me any more.
There is almost no difference between my normal sleep night and the night of daylight savings because I don’t sleep enough in the first place.

think it would be neat to eliminate the concept of time altogether.
One student cited this same sense of groundlessness through the Native American take on Daylight Savings: “One the US government could think that by taking the top of the blanket and sewing it o the bottom of the blanket, that you have a longer blanket.”

For the non-teen world, research shows that the switchover to Daylight Saving Time is linked to an increase in heart attacks as well as traffic accidents.” Aside from the many negative side affects of Daylight Savings Time such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, it also can be humiliating to deal with exhaustion at work and socially. A friend of mine has a job teaching fourth grade in a San Diego public school. This week, coping with her school’s 7:30 AM start up time, which of course was effectively 6:30 due to the sudden time shift, she felt a bit worn out and sick. At last, her students went out for PE class and her classroom was empty. She could only think of lying down to rest. Trouble was, there was nowhere to go and nowhere to lie in her classroom.  If she lay down, what if someone peeked in through the window on the classroom door? So, she lay down right along the door, across the doorway, just hoping she would wake up with she heard the kids. Teachers work hard.

The Grauer School was founded because teens lacked advocacy and voice in our community, as in most communities across the US. There are rarely provisions for them in parks and rarely places for them to go at night that aren’t loitering. There is little way for them to express their voices in typical, overcrowded classrooms. And now that it’s Daylight Savings Time again, there’s diminishing space for them to go to sleep …perchance to dream.

It’s time we all opened up to the fact that, if only dreams could talk, teens would have worlds to teach us. It’s time for us all to write our congressional representatives about this theft of time falsely called Daylight Savings Time.” If daylight savings time could save anything, even a few light bulbs, of course plenty of people would find that beneficial. But I’m just a high school teacher, a teacher of teens and, for me, it’s a terrible waste of daylight and bit like a nightmare: zombies teaching zombies.

So, last Monday morning, I awoke from my nightmare, heart racing, and my mind flashed right back to previous week:

Driving to the campus at 8:45 one morning, there was a senior coed parking her car on the street and making her way up the embankment, late to class already by 15 minutes. One hand on a gigantic, hypercaffeinated power drink, she cast her sleepy glance up at me, a suspended glance, and I knew it meant a question, “Should I feel guilty?” But in truth I felt guilty, guilty that she might find such judgment in my glance, and I smiled as openly as I could so as to say, “You will hear plenty of ‘shoulds’ from people, and maybe even more of them from your own self. But you won’t hear any of that from me.”

1. Griffiths, Jay. Kith: The Riddle of Childhood.

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