The Importance of Sleep in Academia: Why Schools Must Adjust to the Needs of Their Students

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Tony is a seventeen-year-old high school senior who feels tired every morning, regardless of how long he slept the night before. He has tried going to bed earlier, but can not seem to fall asleep until late at night. Tony wakes up at six o’ clock to get ready for school, but regularly arrives late simply because he moves so slowly in the mornings. Tony eventually develops a chronic tiredness, which leads to dropping grades and a lack of social activity.

Tony represents millions of teenagers around the world. Students struggle with sleep deprivation as much as they do partially because they choose to stay up late, but also because their bodies prefer staying up late. Teens would best serve themselves by falling asleep and waking up a couple hours after the rest of the world, but are prevented from doing so by early school schedules. The ensuing lack of sleep has lead to an epidemic of underperforming students whose symptoms are almost entirely preventable. Schools must recognize and adapt to the natural sleep patterns of their already sleep deprived students.

People often neglect sleep with the notion that they can still function without it, but in reality one simply can not function without sleep. Numerous bodily functions such as disease resistance, injury prevention, clear thinking, and mood stability clearly depend on adequate sleep (Amschler). Ronald E. Dahl, M.D., a professor at the University of California at Berkley’s School of Public Health, outlines the importance of sleep in an article he wrote for Phi Delta Kappan. Dahl explains that sleep and rest differ on many different levels. He claims that sleep creates a restorative state that rest cannot come close to replicating. Dahl proposes, “Anyone who doubts this should try the following experiment tonight: spend eight hours resting in bed, with eyes closed, body relaxed, mind floating, in a deeply tranquil state, but without ever going to sleep; then keep track of your mood and performance tomorrow.” Dahl further explains the active and continuous nature of sleep. A full night’s sleep, but with frequent interruptions has proven to be as unproductive as a general lack of sleep itself (Dahl). The body functions better with six hours of continuous sleep than it does with eight hours of sleep with two of three interruptions.

If people deprive themselves of sleep, their bodies will eventually make up that deficit somehow. “Sleep homeostasis” is a term used to describe the body’s need to maintain appropriate levels of sleep (Borbely). The more one deprives oneself of sleep, the more vigorously their body will try to recoup the deficit (Borbely). This homeostatic relationship works on two levels; the body will compensate for the deficit not only by increasing the amount of time it stays asleep, but by intensifying that sleep as well (Borbely). Generally speaking, the longer one waits to replenish their sleep deficit, the harder it will be to do so.

Different people, however, sleep differently. For example, the sleep patterns of teenagers differ greatly from that of the average human being. These differences in sleep patterns have been proven not by mere observations, but by science. Sleep patterns were the first trait to be linked directly to genetics (Herman). This link means that whatever people may do to alter their sleep habits; their bodies will always revert to their preferred pattern, given the chance. Ronald Konopka, a graduate student of a prominent geneticist in the mid-1950s, conducted and experiment with fruit flies to determine the range of variation of their circadian rhythms (Herman). Konopka determined the length of the natural rhythms of his species of fruit flies centered around twenty four hours (Herman). The conclusive part of the experiment however led to the discovery of mutations resulting in a ten-hour spread of period lengths (Herman). These mutations occur in humans, as well, leading to a similar spread of patterns....
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