Are early school schedules leaving Spanish teens “jet lagged”?

According to one pediatrician, starting the first class of the day an hour later would improve secondary students’ academic performance and behavior

How much can a teenage student learn at 8am?
How much can a teenage student learn at 8am?getty

At 8am, every day of the school year, thousands of teenagers walk half-asleep into their classrooms. Their school day will last until at least 2.30pm, which means it’s unlikely they will be eating lunch until 3pm.

It’s been this way for a long time. And it will continue to be this way across most of Spain for the current year at least. The problem, say the experts, is that these hours work against teenagers’ biological clocks, meaning that they are in a state of permanent jet lag.

The continuous school day can trigger metabolic disturbances that predispose students to obesity Pediatrician Gonzalo Pin

“When youngsters go to school between 8am and 2.30pm, many of them will be eating lunch at 3pm or 3.30pm, which means the time they study, have an afternoon snack, eat dinner, go to sleep is pushed back... In other words, it produces continual jet lag,” says Gonzalo Pin, a pediatrician at the Quirónsalud hospital in Valencia and member of the Spanish Sleep Society, which has long been lobbying to change the school timetable.

Starting school later is especially important for older students who are in the last year of secondary high school (ESO) or studying for their baccalaureate (the last education stage before university), because they may be suffering from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), a common condition that makes teens shift to later bedtimes.

“We have an increasing amount of data highlighting the benefits of adapting the school schedule to the biological one, but we are doing exactly the opposite of what biology is telling us,” says Pin. “Normally, a primary student starts school at 9am, but just when they reach adolescence, they are made to start one hour earlier, which is the opposite of what should happen. Teenagers should start school even later than primary school students.”

Benefits of later school hours

The imbalance between a teenager’s biological clock and their school schedule has a range of repercussions. First of all, it affects academic performance since, as Pin points out, teens have “minimal” ability to concentrate and learn at 8am. This is backed up by the European study Sleep Habits in Student’s Performance (SHASTU) led by Pin, which demonstrates the influence of sleeping habits on the emotional state of students between the ages of three and 18, and their academic results.

“Our research shows that adapting school timetables to the biological clock increases academic performance by at least one [percentage] point, particularly in children who were previously performing poorly,” says Pin. “It also reduces the number of behavioral problems in the classroom, making learning time more efficient.”

A study by Boston Children’s Hospital found that over 78% of pre-adolescents were excessively tired during the first hour of school

But these are not the only benefits of starting school later. An increasing number of studies show that excessively early school timetables lead to a chronic lack of sleep in students. This lack of sleep, according to Pin, directly affects the connection between the front part of the brain, which controls executive functions, and the limbic system, which controls emotions, “increasing the difficulty of mental order and cases of depression and anxiety.”

As far as Pin is concerned, adapting school hours with the students’ internal clocks would “improve students’ quality of life.” This has been demonstrated by multiple studies carried out in countries such as the United States, Germany and Israel. According to the results of these studies, adolescents spend 88% of the time gained by later school hours sleeping. This is confirmed by studies carried out by scientists from the neurology department of the Boston Children’s Hospital and published in the magazine Sleep Health. Their research has found that 78.4% of pre-adolescents and 57.2% of adolescents who participated in the study were excessively tired during the first hour of school. Starting just 50 minutes later reduced tiredness in 4.8% and 8.5% of these groups respectively, as the students were able to sleep an average of 30 minutes more on school nights.

New school timetable

In the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, 25 high schools have started the school year with a new schedule, in which students eat at school between 1pm and 2pm instead of waiting until they go home.

This is just one of many recommendations included in the Pact for Schedule Reform in Catalonia, which were outlined in the Bofill Foundation’s report, Education on Time. The reports says consideration must be given to the body’s natural rhythms, concentration cycles and fatigue with regard to the student’s age, arguing “a healthier timetable from a physical, mental and emotional point of view has been shown to contribute to any child or teenager’s motivation and willingness to learn.”

We are doing exactly the opposite of what biology is telling us

Pediatrician Gonzalo Pin

Pin believes the Catalan school schedule should be applied to all ESO and baccalaureate students in Spain. Firstly, because school cafeterias provide a level-playing field when it comes to lunch and give students the chance to learn about nutrition. And secondly, because adapting eating and sleeping schedules to the body’s natural rhythm decreases chronodisruption (the disruption of normal circadian rhythms), a problem that can contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“With the continuous school day, teenagers eat very late at a time when resistance to insulin and fat imbalance rises,” says Pin. “If we take into account that they are also suffering from a chronic lack of sleep, this can trigger metabolic disturbances that predispose them to obesity.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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