The School Start Debate: Circadian Rhythms Affect Academic Performance in Kids


According to a study from UC Berkeley and Northeastern Illinois University, circadian rhythm significantly impacts students’ learning. Several studies have pointed to the possibility that class times mess with students’ biological clocks, and in turn, affect their grades. In light of many high schools all over the United States experimenting with an array of school schedules, these studies dig deep into the inner workings of a teenager’s circadian rhythm—a person’s daily cycle that involves physical, mental, and behavioral changes in a roughly 24-hour period.

Students’ Circadian Rhythms Are Out of Sync

Plenty of research suggests that students’ circadian rhythms are out of sync with class schedules. What people perceive to be a regular or traditional school day may actually be affecting a child’s ability to learn or retain information. A teenager’s biological rhythm is also essentially experiencing what we can liken to jet lag.

The study at the University of California Berkeley conducted by Dr. Benjamin Smarr, an expert in circadian rhythm disruptions and the study’s co-lead author, elaborated, “We found that the majority of students were being jet-lagged by their class times, which correlated very strongly with decreased academic performance.”

In the study, titled, “3.4 million real-world learning management system logins reveal the majority of students experience social jet lag correlated with decreased performance,” Smarr and co-author Aaron Schirmer of Northeastern Illinois University found that there are three different classifications of peoples’ rhythms. There are night owls, daytime finches, and morning larks.

“Because owls are later and classes tend to be earlier, this mismatch hits owls the hardest, but we see larks and finches taking later classes and also suffering from the mismatch,” he discussed. “Different people really do have biologically diverse timing, so there isn’t a one-time-fits-all solution for education.”

The study revealed how 50% of students took classes before they were actually ready for it and fully alert. Interestingly, another 10% of students had already peaked once they had started their classes, meaning they were on the way to losing attention and wanting to fall asleep mid-day.

This “social jet lag” affects a huge number of these teens – meaning their peak alertness is out of sync with their work or school schedules. On top of being linked to learning deficits, this jet lag-like experience may also affect students’ health and contribute to obesity, and even excessive alcohol and tobacco use.]

Why Does this Happen to Teens?

Studies have revealed that as people grow into adults, they tend to “switch” and be active at earlier hours of the day. Comparatively, young adults switch to a later “time zone” or sleep-wake cycle, especially during puberty. Thus, the mismatch to standard schedules that normally work for adults.

Another interesting factor is gender. Men generally stay up later than women do. In addition, a person’s sleep cycle shifts with the seasons based on natural light (summer has longer days or daylight, while winter is the exact opposite).

“Rather than admonish late students to go to bed earlier, in conflict with their biological rhythms, we should work to individualize education so that learning and classes are structured to take advantage of knowing what time of day a given student will be most capable of learning,” suggested Smarr.

“Our research indicates that if a student can structure a consistent schedule in which class days resemble non-class days, they are more likely to achieve academic success,” noted Schirmer.

While it is entirely possible to shift one’s own body clock through behavioral changes, it can prove quite challenging. It can get easier with time, especially with many work schedules adapting to flexible hours. With students, however, research points to the suggestion that rather than work in rigid class settings in a “one size fits all” type of scheduling, education should be individualized. This way, students who have different circadian rhythms can take advantage of learning at a time that suits them, when they are most alert and ready to learn.

Individualizing education during younger years may be difficult but as children get older and pick their classes or class times, selecting a schedule that works best with their own body clock can prove extremely beneficial.

About the Author

Dawna is a mom of two young kids, puppy lover, ice cream lover, chocolate lover, and lover of any ice cream with chunks of chocolate in it. She is the author of seven books, a business owner, certified health coach, motivational speaker, and creator of the 5-Day Detox and the 14-Day Clean-Eating Program. Dawna appears regularly on local and national television. She has appeared on the Today show, Martha, MSNBC, HSN, and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna is a highly sought-after speaker and has done speaking engagements for Chobani, Disney, American Heart Association, Mass Mutual, Wharton Business School, Women’s Entertainment Television, PGA Tour, Super Bowl Leadership Forum, Susan G. Komen, and many more.
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