Sleep experts have called on UAE schools to introduce later start times to help teenagers get enough rest.
Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, was in the UAE this week to explain why she believes schools and parents would benefit from the school day starting later.
“It’s clear they [teenagers] are building huge sleep debt, night after night — which affects their mood, ability to think and to perform and react appropriately,” Prof Carskadon said.
“We have children out there falling asleep in class, who are struggling to learn, who could do better at sports if they could react faster, who are feeling blue and having trouble getting along with the adults in their environment.”
Teenagers require at least nine hours of sleep to be optimally alert, but Prof Carskadon’s research suggests that most average just seven and a half hours a night; while many get six and a half hours, or less, on school nights.
She said tired teenagers presented symptoms similar to narcolepsy — an uncontrollable urge to sleep — simply due to lack of regular and enough sleep.
The University of Birmingham Dubai, Jumeira Baccalaureate School and Nurture2Sleep, a Dubai-based sleep consultancy, hosted, Prof Carskadon at the University of Birmingham Dubai campus on Friday.
Prof Carskadon took part in a panel discussion on the impact of sleep on the adolescent brain.
How early do teenagers in UAE have to be at school?
Pupils in the UAE typically need to arrive at school between 7am and 7.30am — meaning they often need to wake up between 5.30am to 6.30am.
In the UK, typically, a school day begins between 8am and 9am and ends between 3pm and 4pm.
In the US, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends middle and high schools start at 8.30am or later to ensure pupils get enough sleep.
Some schools in Dubai have chosen to start later in the morning so that pupils — especially teenagers — can get more sleep.
Why do teenagers need more sleep?
Prof Carskadon explained that during adolescence the brain changes, and as part of that developmental changes, pushes sleep to a later time.
“When schools start early, teens don’t get enough sleep and that impacts the brain,” she said.
“It turns on things like the amygdala — which is the emotion regulation centre of the brain — making it harder to regulate emotions.
“It also turns down the hippocampus, which is the learning centre of the brain. So, with too little sleep, there are consequences.”
Does getting more sleep help teenagers?
Getting enough sleep improves brain development, overall physical development and learning, said Prof Carskadon.
“The evidence for learning with adequate sleep is impressive. If you're too sleepy to be paying attention to the information that's coming in, that's a barrier to learning.
“If you're too tired to be finding the information to put on your test, or to implement in your life, that's also a problem.”
She said sleep helps in improving learning by 15 to 20 per cent and it is easier to remember what children have learnt.
Dubai school sees improvements after starting later
Jumeira Baccalaureate School shifted its school day to a later start in August 2021 and has already seen punctuality improve.
Previously, pupils had to be in school by 7.30am and the first lesson would start at 7.45am. But since August 2021, pupils have to be in school for an 8.15am start and their first lesson is at 8.30am.
Erika Elkady, vice head teacher at the school, said the initiative is intended to boost well-being by allowing children to get more sleep.
She said a core issue in changing start times was that many parents wanted to drop off their children before they go to work, while some wanted to extend the school day and pick up children after work.
“We have seen that a later start has helped our pupils tremendously, and we are only talking about 45 minutes,” said Ms Elkady.
“We have seen that attendance and punctuality have improved, as well as behaviour. Pupils don't get into arguments as easily as before.”
More research needed
Anthony Murphy, director of psychology at the University of Birmingham Dubai, said the cultural context of the Emirates had to be kept in mind when bringing in changes.
“We have to ask ourselves a difficult question. Who is the school start time designed to serve? Is it designed to serve parents and teachers or to get the best out of our children?” said Mr Murphy.
He said a common factor was late dinners which were largely-carbohydrate based, causing spikes in insulin that in turn makes it difficult to sleep.
“I think what we need to see is a call to arms for research funding to really understand the scale and nature of this issue, because templating in what works elsewhere, doesn't work,” he said.
“It can't work. Because what works is specific to a culture and to a population.
“I think we need to see prioritisation, not on transplanting existing knowledge, but understanding from the bottom up, what's going on, what will work and trying to fix it.”