Giving Teens a Real Shot at Sleep

Scientists, health experts, educators, and advocates join forces at a groundbreaking conference.

Photo by Tracey Collins

A quiet revolution kicked off last week in Washington, D.C. when parents, students, and other advocates from the nonprofit Start School Later joined together in the name of children’s health and well-being. Co-sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the RAND Corporation, the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, and the non-profit Start School Later, the conference brought together people who rarely cross paths but who all share a passion: ensuring school hours that allow students to get healthy sleep.

World-renowned sleep scientists, school leaders, teachers, counselors, policymakers, health professionals, and economists from 33 U.S. states, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Singapore spent two days together in Washington, DC sharing ideas and experiences. The aim was to discuss not only why sleep and school hours matter but how school districts can successfully ensure sleep-friendly school hours.

With so many superintendents, community activists, researchers, and media present, the conference was truly a “game changer…an incredible home-run success beyond imagination” said Wheatleigh Dunham, a co-leader of Start School Later’s Greenwich, CT chapter.Bringing Worlds Together

Bringing Worlds Together

Never before have so many experts on teen sleep and school bell time change gathered together with community leaders and grassroots advocates. Conference participants heard from sleep scientists as well as school leaders from districts that have acted on the research to move bell times later.

Attendees met celebrated student activist Jilly Dos Santos, a Middlebury College sophomore, who at age 15 led a successful charge to delay bell times in her hometown of Columbia, MO, and exchanged ideas with renowned sleep experts including Stanford University’s Rafael Pelayo; Harvard University’s Charles Czeisler and Judith Owens; Brown University’s Mary Carskadon; Loyola University Maryland’s Amy Wolfson; the University of Pittsburgh’s Daniel J. Buysse; Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Dean Beebe; and the RAND Corporation’s Wendy Troxel, who many had seen in the National Geographic film Sleepless in America.

Their common goal was to move an issue forward that has eluded most school systems. Sleep researchers and health professionals have known for nearly 25 years that requiring teenagers to get up and out to class before sunrise is unhealthy and counterproductive. And yet to this day 5 out of 6 U.S. middle and high schools still start at times that keep students from getting enough sleep at the times their growing brains and bodies most need it — often requiring students to wake at 5 or 6 a.m. or even earlier to get to class on time.

The conference brought together people who rarely cross paths but who all share a passion for ensuring school hours that allow students to get healthy sleep.

Award-winning writer and pediatrician Perri Klass, M.D., a professor of both journalism and pediatrics at New York University, kicked off the conference by highlighting ways in which the topic of sleep sets off emotional nerves, touching on deeply held beliefs about parenting and lifestyle choices. This background helped explain why it has been so difficult for so many communities to turn compelling science into policy.

On day two California Senator Anthony Portantino gave a presentation about leading change with Ken Dragseth, the retired superintendent of Edina, MN schools, who back in the 1990s spearheaded the first change in school bell times on the basis of sleep science. Portantino recently introduced statewide legislation that would ensure healthy middle and high school start times in California. Both speakers emphasized that the key to making this change at either the district or state level was keeping the health and wellbeing of the students as the top priority.

Health, education, and advocacy unite as Drs Kyla Wahlstrom, Terra Ziporyn Snider, and Judith Owens field questions at the first-ever National Conference on Adolescent Sleep, Health, and School Start Times, J.W. Marriott, Washington DC, April 27–28, 2017. Photo by J.H. Snider

”Change is hard,” Dragseth acknowledged. “But if your job is to look out for students, this is a no-brainer … Starting school later was the most significant and beneficial decision I made in all the years I was an educator.”

“Change is hard,” Dragseth acknowledged. “But if your job is to look out for students, this is a no-brainer … Starting school later was the most significant and beneficial decision I made in all the years I was an educator.”

Better Than Meeting The Beatles

Participants gushed in tweets, emails, and Facebook posts about how this conference was a life-changing experience and the “best conference” they’ve attended in their careers.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Gail Karafin, a school psychologist from Doyleston PA and the leader of Start School Later Pennsylvania, called the conference an “outstanding success” and a “wonderful opportunity to meet and greet all the sleep experts in one venue. The conference was excellent with concise wisdom from each presenter.”

Photo by Tracey Collins

Several advocates and educators commented that meeting the people who had authored the famous studies was like meeting rockstars. Community advocates were posting selfies on their Facebook pages with pioneers in adolescent sleep research such as Carskadon and Wolfson, and with Kyla Wahlstrom, former Director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) and author of groundbreaking research showing the impact of later bell times on student health, safety, and school performance.

Meeting these and other sleep scientists and health professionals who had been publishing about teen sleep for decades was ”better than meeting the Beatles,” said Sandy Evans, chair of the Fairfax County (VA) Board of Education. Evans shared her district’s multi-year journey — which included working with community advocate Phyllis Payne — getting bell times delayed.

For the scientists, hearing about logistical and emotional challenges that kept their research from being valued and applied was eye-opening. At most scientific meetings, the room quickly clears as the scientists relate their particular findings and then go out to explore the town. For this entire meeting, nearly everyone stayed to hear what others had to say, and you could see the ears of even the most seasoned scientists perk up when they heard a firefighter cum school board member relate what it was like to try to get a room of parents on board with the science of circadian rhythms.

Scientists were moved to tears seeing how their lifetime of work was impacting real lives in the real world.

Some scientists were moved to tears seeing how their lifetime of work was impacting real lives in the real world. Parents, students, and educators were empowered by engaging with world-renowned scientists, economists, and health professionals who had previously been names on a research paper or position statement. Every group learned from each other, increasingly realizing, if they hadn’t before the meeting, that translating science into policy takes a village.

“The positive and energizing ripple effects of this meeting will be far and wide,” said Dunham.

Photo by Kari Oakes

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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 2, 2017.

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