When even a Sonic Boom alarm — very loud and rigged to shake the bed — couldn't wake Terra Ziporyn Snider's teenage daughter for school, the former Wilmette mother knew there had to be a better way.
"My kids suffered hugely. My oldest daughter was driven and stayed up past midnight and had to get up at 6 a.m.," Snider said. "She was psychologically miserable and suffered physical issues. She's almost 26 now and still sees the effects on her body."
Her younger daughter, who wouldn't hear the alarm after a late night of homework, became an advocate for easing the start time at her Maryland high school. She made a video that showed kids sleeping in their first classes, but an attempt to have the first bell ring 15 minutes later at 7:32 a.m. failed.
Discouraged, Snider and her children endured, but with a doctorate in the history of science and medicine, Snider couldn't quite give up on the issue of teens and sleep. When her online petition about start times gained traction in 2011, she co-founded the nonprofit Start School Later, which helps and chronicles such efforts nationwide.
"Until people see sleep and start times as a public health issue, communities won't change, even if schools want to," Snider said. She pointed to "irrefutable" biological evidence that sleep cycles change during adolescence, leaving teens vulnerable to stress, depression, loss of focus and impaired judgment if they get less than the recommended nine hours per night.
Research showing the positive effect of sleep on standardized test scores, school attendance and behavior is gaining a footing in educational circles that also see the flip side, the potential harm caused by sleep deprivation — drowsy driving, lower grades in early classes, criminal acts.
Hundreds of school districts around the country have pushed back school start times, overcoming commonly cited obstacles — bus expenses, parents' work and day care issues, schedules for extracurricular practice and events and teen jobs. In Illinois, it appears there have been few efforts, according to Snider's group. The State Board of Education doesn't keep track.
Some schools, like Barrington District 220, want later start times and are tiptoeing toward that change. As groundwork, they're slipping the importance of sleep into the consciousness of students and parents as a physical and mental health concern.
"Students are really taxing themselves to do more and more to build their resumes, keep up with the Joneses," said Steve McWilliams, principal of Barrington High School. "The challenge is trying to get students to find the appropriate balance.
"Kids think, 'well, I'm functioning.' But if they got enough sleep, think about how better they'd feel," he said. "We're trying to focus on student health as a whole — drugs and alcohol, good decisions about sleep, diet, friends, technology."
The school brought in Olympic coach John Underwood and his national Life of an Athlete program, which led to the formation of the wellness initiative Broncos Committed. Participants at Barrington are required to sign a pledge to stay drug and alcohol free, to promote a culture of health, and to look out for teammates and classmates.
Seeing pictures of brains made spongy by marijuana and alcohol, learning how nutrition keeps training on track and how sleep affects performance is compelling, said Brenda Nelson, a school social worker who coordinates Broncos Committed.
"These are health issues, but also character issues for teens because they go against what others are doing," Nelson said. "They stop and ask, 'Am I living my life the way I should?'"
Connor Kobida, 17, a senior, said he's strictly following the guidelines about everything but sleep. He gets about seven hours a night and "is definitely tired during the day." Still, he said, it's all he can manage with school and four hours of homework, three hours of swim practice a night, various clubs, volunteer work and a weekend job as a golf caddy.
"I've tried to manage my time better, to be organized and productive. I like to stay busy because then I don't have time to do things that aren't good for me," Kobida said. "I like swimming. It gives my life structure and it's a great way to relieve stress and it keeps me healthy."
Kate Scott, 17, also a Barrington senior, said she needs sleep to be competitive in cross-country, yet concedes it's the first thing to go when she gets really busy. She calls her school's focus on it "paradoxical," because while sufficient sleep is stressed, activities are pushed as a way to make the most of the high school experience.
She and a friend have concocted a way to get everything done and squeeze in some fun. When their schedules sync, usually once or twice a week, they meet at 9:15 p.m., watch "Gossip Girl" on Netflix, and still make it to bed around 10:30.
More than just academics
Many teens are juggling heavy academic and extracurricular loads in what Denise Pope, an education professor at Stanford University, sees as an often misguided pathway to college and beyond. Her 2001 book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students," followed five students who she discovered weren't really engaged with learning or able to commit to such values as integrity and community. She advocates a broader vision of "success."
"We need to look beyond test scores and look at turning out motivated people who have skills for the future," said Pope. "We need to focus on the whole child and their social-emotional learning. We can't just be focused on academics because they won't learn if they don't feel healthy and safe."