Having the freedom to choose later start times on school days may be a key advantage of homeschooling—especially for adolescents. If allowed to sleep in and start schooling later in the day, more of them could sleep longer and be less likely to experience sleep deprivation—a common issue among teens[i] that is known to negatively impact their cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, and health.[ii] Here’s what some of the research says.
In a study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine,[iii] homeschool teenagers who started later in the day than public and private school students benefited because the delayed start allowed them to experience an average of 49 more minutes of sleep per night during the week, even though the public and private school students generally had earlier bedtimes. Between Monday and Friday, this translated to 4.1 hours of additional sleep for homeschool students.
The daily difference in the amount of sleep between the groups (i.e., 49 minutes) was about the same as the earlier wake times that the public and private school students needed to catch the bus and get to school. Even when considering that public and private school students did some “catching up” on weekends, the homeschool students still received an average of 3.8 additional hours of sleep per week. As such, the homeschool students had less “sleep debt” than students who attended school outside of their homes.
A Little Less Slumber
In a related study[iv] that did not include homeschoolers, it was found that many adolescent students experienced less than adequate amounts of sleep. For example, during the 9th grade, 43% of freshman boys experienced eight hours of sleep. However, the percent of boys getting eight hours of sleep decreased to 36% for sophomores, 29% for juniors, and 25% for seniors. The percent of high school girls who experienced eight hours of sleep was even smaller. That is, the study found that about 36% of freshmen girls got eight hours of sleep but that the percent dropped to 31% for sophomores, 26% for juniors, and 23% for seniors (the researchers determined that girls experienced less sleep because they studied more, talked more with friends, and spent more time getting ready in the morning).
As such, it is understandable why so many teenagers are sleep deprived: not only do they generally experience less than eight hours of sleep a night, but they also get less sleep with each advancing year of high school. When taught at home, however, that fact that students do not have to get up to catch a bus and travel to school provides them with more time each morning that they can use for sleeping, regardless of their grade level.
Later school start times are also good for teens because of their biological clock.[v] For example, during puberty, the hypothalamus and pituitary regulate hormones in a teen that, among other things, affect sleep. In fact, these hormones are thought to impact the daily sleep-wake (circadian rhythm) cycle in adolescents to the point that it alters their reaction to daylight and darkness.
Evidence of this is seen in teens who, a few years earlier, would have easily gone to sleep as nightfall approached and awakened in the light of morning like most other persons. As teenagers, however, they might get hungry and be wide awake at midnight but often demonstrate a lack of appetite and sluggishness in the morning. In effect, the approaching darkness that used to make them drowsy does not seem to impact them to the same degree that it once did. Even so, homeschooled adolescents who remain awake late at night but are subsequently allowed to sleep in the next morning prior to starting school are less affected than students who must get up for an early school start regardless of when they went to sleep.
The use of electronic devices at night may also contribute to an adolescent’s lack of sleep because light from them is known to “activate” the brain in most individuals.[vi] In fact, the blue spectrum light that radiates from TV, computer, and personal-device screens may, like adolescent hormones, affect the circadian system[vii] and, in turn, make it more difficult for teens to fall asleep if they use these devices just prior to bedtime. Interestingly, researchers[viii] found that public and private school students are more impacted by these devices because they spend more time talking on the phone, watching TV, and surfing the internet at night.
In conclusion, sleep deprivation is a common problem for adolescents that can negatively impact their cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, and health. Furthermore, it is an issue that can have increasingly greater impact on developing teenagers as they progress through the high school years. However, because homeschooling allows parents to adjust the starting time of the school day to align with their teens’ need for sleep, the likelihood of sleep deprivation on the part of students can be decreased and the problems that come with it can be reduced or avoided.
[i] Berger, K.S. 2014. The developing person through the lifespan. Worth Publishers: New York.
[ii] Beebe, D.W. 2011. Cognitive, behavioral, and functional consequences of inadequate sleep in children and adolescents. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 58, 649-665.
Drake, C,. Nickel, C., Burduvali, E., Roth, T., Jefferson, C., & Pietro, B. 2003. The pediatric daytime sleepiness scale (PDSS): Sleep habits and school outcomes in middle-school children. Sleep, 26, 455-458
Fallone, G., Owens, J. A., & Deane, J. 2002. Sleepiness in children and adolescents: Clinical implications. Sleep Medical Reviews, 6, 287-306.
[iii] Meltzer, L. J., Shaheed, K., & Ambler, D. 2016. Start later, sleep later: School start times and adolescent sleep in homeschool versus public/private students. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 14, 140-154.
[iv] Roenneberg, T. 2012. Internal time: Chronotypes, social jet lag, and why you’re so tired. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
[v] Berger, K.S. 2014.
[vi] Meltzer, et al., “Start later, sleep later: School start times and adolescent sleep in homeschool versus public/private students.”
[vii] Peper, J.S., & Dahl, R.E. 2013. The teenage brain: Surging hormones – brain-behavior interactions during puberty. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(2), 134-139.
[viii] Meltzer, et al., “Start later, sleep later: School start times and adolescent sleep in homeschool versus public/private students.”