Sleep is one of the trio of lifestyle health factors which include diet and exercise.
Improving sleep will impact how we learn, work, and recreate.
Based on a multitude of considerations including data collected from Singapore, it is recommended all Secondary Schools and Junior Colleges here start at 8.30am every day.
Why Start School Later?
Sleep inadequacy has long term economic, health and well-being consequences.
Secondary school students here report sleeping an average of 6.5 hours on weekday nights.
Data collected in Singapore indicates that this is insufficient for optimal vigilance and mood.
Eight hours is probably enough but fewer than 15 per cent of secondary school students achieve this.
Merely advising students to sleep earlier and expecting them to exercise self-control will not shift the status quo.
Starting school later makes a structural provision for more sleep in a group where it is inadequate.
Many international schools in Singapore start later and end later than local schools, and their students obtain more sleep than local students.
Hence, reducing curriculum time is not a prerequisite for students to obtain more sleep.
Starting middle and high schools no earlier than 8.30am has been endorsed by the American Academy of Paediatrics, the Society of Behavioural Medicine, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
The same recommendation can be applied here because extensive local research shows that the sleep need of Singaporean adolescents is consistent with US-based recommendations.
Why Start at 8.30am?
Starting school at 8.30am makes provision for sufficient increase of the current, inadequate average sleep duration of 6.5 hours a night towards the eight hour range that we know to be adequate for most, while reducing the likelihood of other scheduling conflicts.
Secondary school students could experience the greatest benefits from this change.
Between Secondary 2 and 3, nocturnal sleep in Singaporean students falls by almost an hour, from 7.5 hours to 6.5 hours.
This is a major concern because inadequate sleep is associated with mood disturbances and depression.
The fall in sleep during adolescence is due to several reasons.
Maturational change in the circadian clock delays preferred sleep time; there is greater school workload and teens exercise greater autonomy over their time and social interactions.
Critics argue that a later start to school will just mean that students sleep later, not more.
This is the most common objection encountered.
While intuitive, it is not supported by data.
Across longitudinal studies where delayed start times of above 30 minutes are provisioned for, later wake-up times have consistently been observed.
Bedtimes either do not change or delay by a smaller amount, resulting in real gains in sleep time.
The largest experiment in ‘starting life later’ took place during Covid-19 lockdowns.
With the exception of healthcare or essential workers, most other persons slept in later, extending sleep duration.
Secondary school children in Singapore obtained about 40 minutes more sleep during the lockdown compared with their usual (short) amount of sleep.
Research conducted in Singapore has also shown that adolescents with eight or nine hours of sleep each night show much better sustained concentration than adolescents with 6.5 hours, indicating that every few minutes closer to the recommended amount of sleep is worth reclaiming.
Alongside are gains in subjective sleep quality, reduction in the difference between weekday and weekend sleep duration (a measure of inadequate weekday sleep), improved alertness, and improved mood.
Feeling a need to complete homework before sleeping is a dominant reason why our students sleep later, and less.
Improving learning efficiency can help supplement the benefits of a later start time.
Accommodating for life schedules in a post-Covid world is a golden opportunity to creatively re-engineer education in Singapore’s transformational roadmaps.
Our Choices Reveal Our Values
Although it is widely stated that sleep is important for health, well being and productivity, our education policies do not always reflect this.
Over the past decade, numerous students and parents have appealed through different channels to start school later, but the stock reply they have been given is that schools have the choice to do so already.
However, schools are reluctant to make changes that require substantial effort if there is no mandate to spur them to action.
This inertia was solved by the State of California by passing a law requiring secondary schools to start no earlier than 8.30am.
The law was viewed as necessary because healthy start times are a public health issue.
If sleep is indeed valued, then examining contrasting policies on provisions for more sleep and Covid-19 control is informative.
After all, people are not given the choice of whether they want to wear masks or practice social distancing.
Time to Act
Ultimately, one can help an undernourished person by providing nutritious food.
This does not guarantee that the person will eat appropriately.
Having a mandatory school start-time delay would be a clear signal that the authorities care enough about adolescent sleep to make provisions for it.
Many schools in Singapore are already implementing staggered start times during the pandemic as a crowd control measure.
The additional resources for a permanent delay in start time are within reach.
As we emerge from Covid-19, if we don’t deliberately reallocate time saved from commuting for sleep, it will be claimed by competing time-sinks such as the blurring of work/non-work boundaries and massively increased ‘recreational’ data consumption.
It’s time to make time for sleep.
About the writers: Associate Professor Joshua Gooley from Duke-NUS Medical School, and Assistant Professor June Lo and Professor Michael Chee from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, are internationally recognised sleep scientists who seek to use their extensive research findings to transform lives.