Some schools, such as Toronto Prep School, are adapting their schedules to their students’ sleep cycles. The question is, why aren’t they all?
by Glen Herbert
“The optimal time for teenagers to learn is late in the morning through to late afternoon,” says Fouli Tsimikalis, vice principal of Toronto Prep School (TPS), a school she co-founded with Steve Tsimikalis in 2009. “An ideal school schedule for teens is a class timetable that starts at about 10:00 a.m. and continues until after 4:00 p.m.” More than three decades of research backs up that assertion. So, when they developed the program, that’s exactly what they did: since day one—TPS is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year—the school has opened its doors at 7:30 each morning, with teachers available for extra help between 9 and 10, and classes beginning at 10. The instructional day ends at 4, with discretionary clubs and sports until 6 or so.
“It made sense for us,” she says, something based in her experience of having taught for more that 20 years. Likewise, Steve is in his 35th year of teaching, while also serving as principal of TPS. “After teaching thousands of kids, literally, and reading hundreds of psychological assessments, educational assessments, we decided to put a program together that we felt could reach a lot of children who were not reaching their potentials.” Principally, that was kids who were coming from different academic backgrounds, and who were looking for a safe, nurturing school, one that could be more effective in supporting them. As such, they built the TPS program around what they had grown increasingly to see as core best practices: a late start, a semestered system, small classes, and a high teacher-to-student ratio.
The late start, particularly, continues to demonstrate its worth. “Period one isn’t frenzied in the morning,” says Tsimikalis. “The students come in and they are awake, they are much more responsive, clearer, and they are more ready to work.” The feedback from parents, too, has been consistently positive, often in ways that weren’t expected. “They say that their kids are more engaged when they come home from school. They talk about what they did at school. At the dinner table they’ll talk about what they did in their classes, which some parents say is something they never got before.”
A reasoned response to a growing problem
In many ways, those kinds of anecdotal benefits are the tip of a very large iceberg. A growing body of research shows that, when it comes to learning and sleep, there’s a lot at stake. A study published in 2014 by researchers at the University of Minnesota was based on 9000 students across three US states. It found that teens who get less than eight hours of sleep had higher rates of depression, and a greater reliance on substances, principally caffeine. Grades went down relative to sleep, and truancy went up. Further, “the number of car crashes for teen drivers from 16 to 18 years of age was significantly reduced by 70% when a school shifted start times.”
Because of those kinds of findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics called insufficient sleep in adolescents “an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success” of middle- and high-school students. “We are in an epidemic of sleep deprivation," says Indra Narang, director of sleep medicine at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. “In 20 years time, we're going to see a whole generation of adults who are functioning sub-optimally.” That includes a spike in diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle, including obesity and diabetes.
The science behind early birds and night owls
“What happens is [that their] circadian rhythms … get shifted by about one or two hours when puberty starts,” says Genevieve Gariepy, lead researcher on a teen sleep study at McGill University that was published in 2016. “Adolescents tend to just fall asleep later and wake up later. Adolescents will typically fall asleep around 11 or midnight and wake up around eight hours later."
Gariepy’s research is a direct descendent of work that began in 1976 when James Horne and Olov Östberg developed a tool—the morningness–eveningness questionnaire (MEQ)—in order to gain a better sense of what circadian rhythms are. In the years since, the MEQ has been used extensively, and we’ve learned a lot from it as well as the secondary research that it inspired. Among other things, we’ve learned that older people tend to skew more to morningness—they get up early, and go to bed early—and it’s not just personal preference. Rather, it’s a reflection of what’s going on in their bodies, right down to the cellular level.
Similarly, teens skew to eveningness, and it isn’t because they are sluggish or indolent, but because there is more to our circadian rhythms than most of us are aware. First, they aren’t localised in our brains, but instead dispersed throughout bodies. Our cells themselves have their own oscillations throughout the 24-hour cycle, regulating temperature, metabolic function, hormone levels, and mental acuity. The mechanisms associated with puberty shift teens’ natural sleep cycles back, and all the various processes of their bodies fall in line with that delay, including spikes in body temperature and the ebb and flow of metabolism and alertness across the course of the day.
" … what we don't want to do is miss the opportunity"
The instructional schedules that schools tend to keep—something akin to bankers’ hours—aren’t aligned with the predominant teen chronotype, but rather run precisely counter to it. Yet, despite the success of schools like TPS, as well as others in the US, most schools in Canada have been slow to adjust. Some boards have initiated pilot projects, notes Tsimikalis, though the public system is unwieldy and slow to change. Most private schools, too, have opted to stay with more traditional schedules, either out of inertia or for the convenience of teachers and parents. But that of course comes with a cost. Says Narang, “what we don't want to do is miss the opportunity to intervene now,” rather than later when the damage to academic success, lifestyle, and overall health has already been done.
Some, however, are taking note. Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, Ridley College moved morning chapel to the afternoon and pushed classes back to open up time in the mornings for physical activity. TPS, though, has distinguished itself as an earlier adopter—perhaps the first in Canada—of more radical, decisive and ultimately more effective change. In doing so they’re providing a model that others will soon follow, or certainly should.