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Owens ’80 advocates later start for more sleep

Contributing Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010

Thanks to a study conducted by Judith Owens ’80, associate professor of pediatrics at the Alpert Medical School, more high schools could push back their daily schedules to better accommodate their students’ sleeping patterns.

Owens conducted an experiment at St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., a private coeducational high school where, until the beginning of the 2009–10 school year, classes began at 8 a.m.

The faculty at St. George’s was skeptical at first, Owens said, but she presented biological evidence that supported a later start. The school agreed to begin classes at 8:30 a.m. for the fall semester and to monitor the change’s effects on the students and their academic performance.

Owens kept track of reports of tardiness, visits to the health center and academic performance. The results were such that by the end of the semester, Owens said, nobody wanted to switch back to an 8 a.m. starting time.

The head of school, Eric Peterson, contacted Owens after hearing about the positive results of starting classes later each morning at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, Owens said.

Owens’ colleague, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Mary Carskadon, began studying the teenage sleeping pattern extensively in the ’90s.

Owens said the results of Carskadon’s work inspired her to aim for a practical purpose in her research.

“My dream would be to develop a toolkit for schools that has all the factual information, that has an evidence base, that has information about different ways of doing this,” Owens said. At the onset of puberty, children start to get tired two hours later due to a delay in their bodies’ natural production of melatonin, Carskadon’s research found.

At demanding schools, such as St. George’s, students stay up late to try and get their work done, Owens said.

But instead of taking advantage of the extra half-hour by going to sleep later every night, students at St. George’s reported going to bed 18 minutes earlier on average after the scheduling shift, according to a Sept. 17 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. They also said they felt more motivated and experienced fewer symptoms of depression.

Owens said most high school and college students need eight to nine hours of sleep each night.

“Their academic performance, their health, their mood — all of these things are intricately tied to getting enough sleep, and you really are sacrificing important parts of your quality of life by not getting enough sleep,” she said.

Owens’ findings at St. George’s supported the results of her previous research as well as Carskadon’s. But the endorsement of professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, will be necessary before more schools make similar schedule changes, she said.

“The more we can get the backing of groups like this, I think it will lend credibility to our efforts and hopefully bring this issue to the attention of the school administrators who need to be aware of this being an option,” she said.

Ultimately, Owens said, she hopes changes will occur on the regional and state level.

“We need to approach this on both an individual school system level and a policy level,” she said.

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