In summary

Nancy Deutsch, University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development’s Youth-Nex Center: California’s law letting teenagers sleep an extra hour was a good first step. Now, Legislature should adopt an ‘agenda for adolescents’

By Nancy Deutsch, Special to CalMatters

Nancy Deutsch is the director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development’s Youth-Nex Center,  nancyd@virginia.edu. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Today, in middle schools across California and the country, many students struggle to balance the weight of rigorous academic coursework, extracurricular commitments, and social obligations with peers, all of which occur after the final bell rings. 

This all unfolds amid the significant physical, social, and biological changes that happen during early adolescence.

In the face of these responsibilities and pressures, teens often have no choice but to sacrifice a well-rounded night of sleep. And while you may find yourself saying “none of the adults I know get enough sleep either,” a lack of sleep has particularly detrimental effects for middle schoolers. 

While research on adolescent development stresses that our teens need up to nine and a half hours of sleep a night, just three in 10 middle school students in America are reaching that benchmark.

Among the many evidence-based steps we can take to alleviate the many pressures our early adolescents face, one seems fairly straightforward: make middle school start later.

Yet it took until this past fall for California to be the first in the nation to pass legislation that mandated middle schools start no earlier than 8am, a landmark bill that will be closely watched this year. 

The potential benefits of this shift are clear to see in the form of higher attendance rates, increased engagement in the classroom, improved memory and retention, and overall rises in quality of life and well-being.

If other states follow California’s lead this year, we can ensure that our adolescents have a stronger foundation from which they can succeed in school and life.

Yet given the growing body of research that illustrates the unique potential of this period in our lives, shouldn’t we do more to build on that foundation and transform middle schools to better address our teens’ needs? 

The good news is we can by  structuring hands-on, supportive, and culturally relevant opportunities that support middle school students’ healthy development.

California’s policymakers can set an example for the rest of the nation in harnessing this potential during the current legislative session, proposing policies that reflect the proven promise of the middle school years.

To do so, we need to upend the preconceived notions that many adults hold of middle school students, ranging from their capabilities to the support they need to excel. 

For example, while people think the brain has already fully developed by adolescence, it is actually experiencing transformative change, home to a rapidly growing network of neurons, especially those that are most important to our teens’ healthy development. 

That evolution hinges on assuring widespread access to stimulating, engaging, and rigorous experiences. And so we must ensure educators have the tools and professional development they need to challenge teens to tackle complex tasks in hands-on settings, whether in makerspaces, fab labs, or their natural surroundings.

Similarly, we must reject the notion that our middle school students are too young to make a difference. 

We have seen how young people, past and present, continue to engineer transformative change on issues ranging from civil rights to climate change. That is no accident. At this stage in development, adolescents are particularly driven to exhibit autonomy, demonstrate their independence, and take risks

Therefore, let’s put policies in place to elevate student voices on local issues and inspire new approaches to civic engagement that unfold in the community as opposed to the classroom. A constitutional amendment passed this year by the California Assembly would provide the opportunity to do just that, lowering the voting age to 17

To realize this groundbreaking potential, though, young people need specific resources and support along the way. 

Instead of assuming they are focused only on engaging with their peers, we must increase access to trusted adults who can provide critical guidance, mentorship, and support as they navigate the potential—and pitfalls—of adolescence.

In that vein, we can bolster and elevate formal mentoring programs and the naturally occurring relationships that youth have with adults in and out of schools, accounting for the transformative impact that supportive, caring adults can have on students. 

And as they wrestle with questions of identity and belonging across their academic and extracurricular activities, we can ensure educators and afterschool staff have the training and capacity to develop curricula that nurture students’ emerging sense of self and align with their lived experiences in their communities. We know that such a step can contribute to success in the classroom.

California can leverage this mounting research on adolescence to fundamentally transform the middle school experience. Ensuring our young people get the sleep they need to thrive is a small, albeit meaningful first step. California should build on that foundation and adopt policies to transform the trajectories of California—and America’s—teens.

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Nancy Deutsch is the director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development’s Youth-Nex Center,  nancyd@virginia.edu. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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