SINGAPORE: For almost a year now, Nanyang Girls High (NYGH) students have been starting school at 8.15am – a good 45 minutes later than most secondary schools.
And the results have been telling.
The school in Bukit Timah has been taking part in ground-breaking sleep studies conducted by Duke-NUS Medical School researchers – whose studies have shown that 80 per cent of teens here don’t get enough sleep, which affects their health, grades and cognitive abilities.
It was what the teachers of NYGH had been suspecting all along.
Mrs Ho-Sam Choon Juen, NYGH dean of student systems and info management, said: “For a long time, we’d known that our girls were not sleeping enough because of their academic and extra-curricular demands.
"Some of the teachers’ observations were that they (the students) looked tired and sleepy in class."
And so, in the second semester of 2016, the school delayed its start time so that students could get proper sleep - tweaking how it ran its curriculum so that they wouldn’t have to end school later.
There is scientific reasoning behind letting teens sleep in later, according to principal investigator Professor Michael Chee.
“Your biological clock shifts when you go into your teen years, you start having a preferred sleep time that’s about one hour later. And this tends to shift back when you reach young adulthood," said Prof Chee, who is also director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS.
So it's the teen years that are very critical. And this is why we believe that if we start school later, it should be primarily directed at secondary schools.
GIRLS MORE ENERGISED FOR THE DAY
And at Nanyang Girls, 45 minutes has made all the difference, for the students and teachers.
NYGH chemistry teacher Mr Muhammad Imran has noticed a distinct change in the students. The school environment has also become more vibrant in the morning.
“I think that’s because everyone is already more energetic when school starts,” he said, noting that there were fewer sleepyheads in class.
WATCH: How the school did it (4:31)
“The girls might not be necessarily excited about the lesson but at least they’re excited even before the lesson starts – and that makes it a lot easier for everyone, not just the teachers but for students to be more comfortable," Mr Imran added.
Alexandra Egan, 16, thinks an extra half-hour to sleep has been key to getting her through the school day a lot better. Waking up early used to make her feel lethargic throughout the day. Once, she said:
I was in the toilet and I fell asleep. I fell down and hurt myself.
“At the end of the day I would find myself losing focus and not really catching what the teacher was saying. But now, for my last lesson, I’ll still be paying attention,” Alexandra said, adding she also has energy left over for her CCA after classes.
This reaffirms one study by Prof Chee on how teenagers’ cognitive abilities and mood are affected by sleep. He had 60 students take part in an experiment at the Nanyang Girls Boarding School to document the effects of multiple nights of sleep restriction.
“What we’ve been trying to do in these studies is, firstly, to show that even among very high performing students, sleep restriction to five hours in bed over multiple nights - simulating a school week - can degrade performance.
“There are cumulative declines in your vigilance, speed of processing, executive function - all of which are fundamental cognitive processes around which all other bits of cognition are built,” said Prof Chee.
For Vivien Tan, 16, just knowing the extra 45 minutes is there has led to much better-quality sleep. “Previously I’d go to sleep worrying about my assignments the next day," she said.
"Now I know that I can wake up with a certain amount of time to study before school starts. It has allowed me to relax at night, so I have really good, deep sleep.”
PLANNING SO THAT SCHOOL DOESN’T END LATER
The case for schools in Singapore to start later has surfaced regularly over the years.
But the arguments against it have always included how this would clash with the work schedules of parents, who would be late getting to the office after sending their children to school. Some also worry if their kids would end school later, while others are concerned if there would be a cut in curriculum time.
Indeed, teacher Mr Imran was concerned about whether his students would be stuck in traffic jams with the office-bound crowd.
My second thought was if we start later, does that mean we’re going to end later and everything is just going to be pushed back - and the cycle continues?
“So I would say that initially my thoughts weren’t great. Honestly, I wasn’t enthusiastic about this,” he admitted.
But NYGH decided to take the bold step anyway. As Mrs Ho-Sam said: “It’s really about the students’ well-being.”
To assuage the concerns of the different groups, the school re-designed the timetable structure, re-distributed the curriculum hours, staggered the recess timing, and changed the assembly to a fortnightly session.
It took about half a year of planning before they rolled out the initiative in mid-2016.
Mrs Ho-Sam said: “We made sure that we did not compromise the curriculum hours for each subject, and that the teachers still have sufficient interaction time with the girls during lessons.
It is about effective and clever use of time as well. We managed to start school later by 45 minutes each day without ending the afternoon later for the girls.
This is important, because the girls still have third-language classes, tuition or CCAs to attend after school.
FOR SOME PARENTS, MORE TIME FOR BONDING
Before the school rolled out this initiative, they engaged parents. Some were concerned because they had other children attending schools that started at the regular time.
These parents were assured that if they needed to continue sending their daughters to school at 7.30am, there would be teachers around for their security. Said Mrs Ho-Sam: “The teachers are not coming later. Only the students report in later. Even the canteen operates at the same time as well.”
She added that the students who come early “can use the time do their work, or even just chill. They feel that the school hours are not as rushed as before”.
It also works out well for the teachers, who can hold their daily meetings in the mornings instead of during recess time which left them with very little break time, Mrs Ho-Sam noted.
Parent Mr Chng Hock Huat was initially sceptical about the school’s move. Already, the father of five was making multiple trips in the morning to send his kids to school, and he was worried about making huge changes to his schedule.
“But then I remembered how during our school days, if I was allowed to snooze for another 10 minutes, it was really like paradise. So why deprive my daughter of that?” he said.
Mr Chng said the later start time has resulted in him sharing a closer relationship with his daughter. “Now we have the privilege of having a nice breakfast at our favourite wanton noodle stall at least once a week (before school). My wife and I can chat with our teenage girl. So it’s really wonderful,” he said.
While he acknowledges that it poses some logistical challenges for working parents, it is great that they are given that option.
There will be parents concerned that with one hour less (of curriculum time), something must give. I think we should remind ourselves, school is not a factory. It’s all about doing more with less.
For instance, he said, “the kids can always come earlier to have their discussion group. The notion of giving them this discretionary time is to allow them to make full use of it.”
BUT CAN THIS BE SUSTAINED?
The catch? Some students are now making use of this extra time to catch up on their work or watch their favourite Youtube shows, said Alexandra.
So are they actually getting more sleep?
Prof Chee’s team tracked about 400 students with time logs and actigraph watches, and surveyed around 100 parents and 60 teachers. They found that the self-reported increase in sleep duration was, on average, around 20 minutes.
“This is on par with studies elsewhere – you get about 50 per cent yield on the gain in sleep,” said Prof Chee.
Whether even this increase in sleep can be sustained is a key question. “Just like with a diet or exercise programme, there’s a honeymoon period that lasts about a year – then after that, you find that unless the person has a substantial change in behaviour that’s internally motivated, you see recidivism into prior behaviour.”
That’s why sleep education is important, he said – as well as the time-use logs, so that students with irregular sleep patterns can eventually be helped with counselling and customised advice.
“Nothing works like success,” said Prof Chee. “If the students, parents and teachers see for themselves the benefits of improving sleep, then you know, we hope that several will come out and serve as advocates or role models for better sleep.”
SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS START LATER?
This is why Prof Chee thinks that it can become possible to roll out this start-late approach to all schools across Singapore.
"I think it’s going to take time but I am optimistic. (Singaporeans) will adjust to what’s good for them, and when they see how well the school does, they will want to follow," he said.
When contacted, the Ministry of Education said that most schools start their school day at around 7.30am or later. It said that the amount of sleep that students get each night is not just dependent on their waking time but also on their sleeping habits and routine.
The ministry added: “Schools take into consideration their parents’ feedback, transport provisions and traffic situation around their schools to determine their start time.
“Schools are also mindful that starting schools later has an impact on schools’ dismissal time, with lessons continuing during the hotter part of the afternoon.”