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Reorganizing School Schedules: Start Times, Light, Scheduling

Posted Sep 07 2008 2:19am

With summer drawing to a close and schools starting up for a new season, what better time to take a look at how schools utilize research about the brain in determining the timing of the flow of school. Not only current brain research, but common sense, tells me the following areas need tweaking.

  • - School start times and sleep
  • - Exposure to natural light
  • - Scheduling of classes

Left to your own devices, what time would you go to sleep each evening and what time would you wake up? As adults, it is likely that external responsibilities determine your wake time, and the maturity of age guides your sleep time. More often than not, thanks to a sound night’s sleep, you wake mentally refreshed and prepared to face the day. Teenagers are simply out of luck in this realm.

Melatonin is responsible for our body rhythms, also known as circadian rhythms. These sleep/wake cycles are directly influenced by our exposure to light. As darkness sets in, melatonin is released, promoting the urge to go to sleep. Teenagers usually release melatonin at later times in the evening so they tend to fall asleep later and wake up later.

Notice, there is no “early” in that last sentence, and the result is that teenage circadian rhythms are often out of synch with school start times. The National Sleep Foundation has found that school start times should be altered to accommodate teenagers, with the anticipation that better quality sleep will promote healthful patterns, resulting in more beneficial learning environments.

Light and dark do more than impact our circadian rhythms. Light also influences our moods. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) results from insufficient exposure to sunlight in the fall and winter months. Research has shown that natural light has a consistent and predictable positive effect on student performance.

When my seventeen year old was in middle school, he astutely noted that during the best hours of winter daylight, students were kept indoors. While it may not be practical to retro fit school buildings so that natural light permeates every classroom, when coupled with the benefits of exercise, the benefits of every student having outdoor recess would go a long way toward alleviating SAD and waking up neurons.

Okay, so they are out of bed and in school, though they may be yawning through the morning. Now they have to follow the schedule of classes. Research has shown that in middle schools the best type of class schedule is one that incorporates longer segments of time. How many schools do you know of that tend to schedule classes that last longer than 45 minutes?

Not only could the daily class schedule have flexible chunks of time, but the yearly school schedule could also be designed to better accommodate the diversity of student learners. The Center for Public Education takes an in-depth look at What research says about reorganizing school schedules in this 2006 posting.

If you know of examples or have experiences that support or refute these suggestions, please share them! And please note that my perspective is based on teaching middle and high school students for the past ten years, and also having taught at schools that had flexible scheduling blocks.

For additional information related to these topics:

  • - The Operation of the Flexible All-Year School Plan
  • - School: The Story of American Public Education

Laurie BartelsLaurie Bartels writes the Neurons Firing blog to create for herself the "the graduate course I’d love to take if it existed as a program". She is the K-8 Computer Coordinator and Technology Training Coordinator at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the organizer of Digital Wave annual summer professional development, and a frequent attendee of Learning & The Brain conferences.

brain research, circadian rhythms, exercise, human brain, melatonin, natural light, recess, Scheduling, School start times, Seasonal Affective Disorder, sleep, student performance, teenagers

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