When even a Sonic Boom alarm — very loud and rigged to shake the bed — couldn't wake Terra Ziporyn Snider's teenage daughter for school, the former Wilmette mother knew there had to be a better way.
"My kids suffered hugely. My oldest daughter was driven and stayed up past midnight and had to get up at 6 a.m.," Snider said. "She was psychologically miserable and suffered physical issues. She's almost 26 now and still sees the effects on her body."
Her younger daughter, who wouldn't hear the alarm after a late night of homework, became an advocate for easing the start time at her Maryland high school. She made a video that showed kids sleeping in their first classes, but an attempt to have the first bell ring 15 minutes later at 7:32 a.m. failed.
Discouraged, Snider and her children endured, but with a doctorate in the history of science and medicine, Snider couldn't quite give up on the issue of teens and sleep. When her online petition about start times gained traction in 2011, she co-founded the nonprofit Start School Later, which helps and chronicles such efforts nationwide.
"Until people see sleep and start times as a public health issue, communities won't change, even if schools want to," Snider said. She pointed to "irrefutable" biological evidence that sleep cycles change during adolescence, leaving teens vulnerable to stress, depression, loss of focus and impaired judgment if they get less than the recommended nine hours per night.
Research showing the positive effect of sleep on standardized test scores, school attendance and behavior is gaining a footing in educational circles that also see the flip side, the potential harm caused by sleep deprivation — drowsy driving, lower grades in early classes, criminal acts.
Hundreds of school districts around the country have pushed back school start times, overcoming commonly cited obstacles — bus expenses, parents' work and day care issues, schedules for extracurricular practice and events and teen jobs. In Illinois, it appears there have been few efforts, according to Snider's group. The State Board of Education doesn't keep track.
Some schools, like Barrington District 220, want later start times and are tiptoeing toward that change. As groundwork, they're slipping the importance of sleep into the consciousness of students and parents as a physical and mental health concern.
"Students are really taxing themselves to do more and more to build their resumes, keep up with the Joneses," said Steve McWilliams, principal of Barrington High School. "The challenge is trying to get students to find the appropriate balance.
"Kids think, 'well, I'm functioning.' But if they got enough sleep, think about how better they'd feel," he said. "We're trying to focus on student health as a whole — drugs and alcohol, good decisions about sleep, diet, friends, technology."
The school brought in Olympic coach John Underwood and his national Life of an Athlete program, which led to the formation of the wellness initiative Broncos Committed. Participants at Barrington are required to sign a pledge to stay drug and alcohol free, to promote a culture of health, and to look out for teammates and classmates.
Seeing pictures of brains made spongy by marijuana and alcohol, learning how nutrition keeps training on track and how sleep affects performance is compelling, said Brenda Nelson, a school social worker who coordinates Broncos Committed.
"These are health issues, but also character issues for teens because they go against what others are doing," Nelson said. "They stop and ask, 'Am I living my life the way I should?'"
Connor Kobida, 17, a senior, said he's strictly following the guidelines about everything but sleep. He gets about seven hours a night and "is definitely tired during the day." Still, he said, it's all he can manage with school and four hours of homework, three hours of swim practice a night, various clubs, volunteer work and a weekend job as a golf caddy.
"I've tried to manage my time better, to be organized and productive. I like to stay busy because then I don't have time to do things that aren't good for me," Kobida said. "I like swimming. It gives my life structure and it's a great way to relieve stress and it keeps me healthy."
Kate Scott, 17, also a Barrington senior, said she needs sleep to be competitive in cross-country, yet concedes it's the first thing to go when she gets really busy. She calls her school's focus on it "paradoxical," because while sufficient sleep is stressed, activities are pushed as a way to make the most of the high school experience.
She and a friend have concocted a way to get everything done and squeeze in some fun. When their schedules sync, usually once or twice a week, they meet at 9:15 p.m., watch "Gossip Girl" on Netflix, and still make it to bed around 10:30.
More than just academics
Many teens are juggling heavy academic and extracurricular loads in what Denise Pope, an education professor at Stanford University, sees as an often misguided pathway to college and beyond. Her 2001 book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students," followed five students who she discovered weren't really engaged with learning or able to commit to such values as integrity and community. She advocates a broader vision of "success."
"We need to look beyond test scores and look at turning out motivated people who have skills for the future," said Pope. "We need to focus on the whole child and their social-emotional learning. We can't just be focused on academics because they won't learn if they don't feel healthy and safe."
In assessing schools, she looks at stress levels, cheating, if teachers care, mental and physical health of students, and motivation. At home, her three teenagers "park" their various technological devices on the kitchen counter every night so there's no buzzing, beeping or artificial light while they sleep. They also don't have televisions or computers in their rooms.
"This way, nobody can contact them, and they're not tempted to text or play games," Pope said. She also tries to get them to spend a half hour before bedtime decompressing — even if it's reading on their Kindles with the light dimmed.
While parents can try to control late-night access to electronics, it's futile to set earlier bedtimes for adolescents, said Kathryn Reid, research associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
"Sleep changes across our life span," Reid said. Teens require more than adults, and teens go to bed later and wake up later because their circadian clock runs a little longer than the normal 24-hour period, she said.
"It's difficult for them to fall asleep earlier, so if they have to wake earlier for school, it truncates their sleep," Reid said. "As they mature, they somewhat grow out of it and become normal adults."
She calls the biological factors and the behavioral factors — wanting to text or play games — the perfect storm for teens. How each teen is affected varies.
"It's like eating. You need about 1,600 calories a day to survive, but you can eat more or less and be OK. If you eat too much or too little, that's a problem, though," Reid said. With sleep, fewer than five hours is a problem and so is more than nine, she said.
Depression is linked to sleep deprivation and there are cardio and metabolic issues with less than five hours of shut-eye, she said, and new research is showing that lack of sleep and obesity may be connected. Knowing that teens and the military have the highest accident rates due to driving while drowsy, Reid has campaigned to get the importance of sleep into driver's education classes.
"Getting up early is a risk to them," she said.
Effects of later school start times have been studied in the Minneapolis area, in Wake County, N.C., and elsewhere, with the results often cited by advocates wanting change in their communities. A 2012 study by an economist after 146,000 middle school students in North Carolina started school an hour later showed math and reading scores went up by two to three percentile points. In addition, students watched TV 15 minutes less per day and spent 17 minutes more on homework per week.
In 2011, a study of first-year cadets at the Air Force Academy showed a similar correlation between performance and start times. All freshmen take the same courses, but those who started before 8 a.m. scored lower in all classes than those who started an hour later.
Kids more alert, not fighting
Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center of Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, did seminal research on the various effects of changing start times on schools in Minneapolis and Edina, a suburb of that city. Edina became the first school district in the nation to change start times, in 1996. Minneapolis followed a year later, moving the bell for high school back 1 hour and 40 minutes, at least in part due to early results in Edina, Wahlstrom said.
"Parents said they couldn't get over the change in their kids. They were not angry, not picking fights," she said. "Teachers said kids were more alert in first and second period classes.
"The concern was that kids would stay up later, but that didn't happen. If their biology said to go to bed at 10:45 p.m., they did, and kids were getting an hour more of sleep a night," she said.
Edina already had a very high percentage of students graduating, but the rate in Minneapolis before the start time change was under 60 percent, Wahlstrom said. Among continuous enrollment students — those who finish in four years — the rate rose 3 percent a year between 1997 and 2002, the years of her study, she said.
Yet later start times — with the outcome better the later the time, Wahlstrom said — are only part of the picture.
"We need to educate parents and students about the relationship between sleep and high-risk behaviors," including drugs and drowsy driving, she said. A study she's finishing for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at teen drivers and found that driving with fewer than six hours of sleep was the equivalent of a blood alcohol level of .05, she said. The legal limit in Illinois is .08.
"That's a public health and public safety issue," Wahlstrom said.
She's had people tell her that she's just coddling teenagers, she said. Snider, of Start School Later, sees the issue as more pervasive.
"We have a fear and hatred of sleep. We say, 'early to bed, early to rise,' and people brag about pulling an all-nighter," Snider said. "We think of sleep as something that only the weak need.
"You're not going to drop dead overnight (for lack of sleep), but over time, it's going to have a significant impact on your health," she said.
Jilly Dos Santos, a high school junior in Columbia, Mo., led a successful effort earlier this year to push back the first bell from 7:50 a.m. to 8:55 a.m., and heard plenty of comments about teens being lazy and entitled. She countered them, she said, with the science about sleep.
"When we went up before the school board, we had evidence. Others spoke with just passion," she said.
The change started with the new school year. "I really like it," Dos Santos said. "I have energy. I don't freak out when I get up. It's better for my body and I feel more productive. I feel more like an adult with a schedule."
Barrington principal McWilliams and district administrators want to achieve later start times by 2020 as part of a more far-reaching strategic plan.
But McWilliams isn't waiting. In a spring letter to parents and students about class scheduling, he asked them to "consider their sleep needs and how they match up with family, academic, extracurricular and community commitments."
He sees the pressures every day, even with his sons, who are in elementary school. As he limits their activities, he wrestles with the possible consequences.
"I want them to have down time. But in the back of my mind, I wonder if I'm putting them at a disadvantage," McWilliams said.