School Really Should Start Later

Pushing start times back just 25 minutes can increase how much sleep teens get and how productive they are


If you believe sitcoms and commercials, waking kids up in the morning to get them to school is one of the least fun parts of parenting. And it might be time to fix that. A recent study suggests that the timing of the first bell at schools is hurting adolescents, whose natural clocks aren’t ready for a bright and early start. 

This particular study looked at boarding students and was able to experiment with the start time of school be delaying it from 8 to 8:25 a.m. over a term. Those extra 25 minutes might not seem like a lot, but according to the researchers it upped the kids' sleep time by 29 minutes each night. The percent of students who got eight or more hours of sleep leapt from 18 percent to 44 percent. 

This isn’t really news to any parent, teenager or researcher. In December, NPR aired a piece about parents pushing for later start times on behalf of their sleepless kids. There’s even a national organization called Start School Later that is gathering signatures in all fifty states. Allison Aubrey at NPR explains:

Sleep scientists argue that early high school start times conflict with teens' shifting circadian rhythms. Beginning in puberty, "adolescents are programmed to fall asleep later," says Dr. Judith Owens, who directs the Sleep Medicine Clinic at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. And she says many teenagers can't fall asleep before 11 p.m.

Because teenagers need eight to nine hours of sleep, waking up at 6 a.m. can lead to a pattern of sleep deprivation. And that puts them at higher risk of a whole range of potential problems, from depression to automobile accidents.

Start School Later, whose position on school start times is obvious, writes:

Considerable research confirms the relationship between school start times, sleep deprivation, and student performance, truancy, and absenteeism, as well as depression, mood swings, impulse control, tobacco and alcohol use, impaired cognitive function and decision-making, obesity, stimulant abuse, automobile accidents, and suicide. Mounting evidence about the biology of adolescent sleep, and about the impact of later start times, shows that starting school before 8 a.m. not only undermines academic achievement but endangers health and safety. Because logistical and financial issues prevent local school systems from establishing safe and educationally defensible hours, however, legislation mandating start times consistent with student health and educational well-being is essential.

School around the country are considering what to do. In Dallas, for example, where school starts at 7:30 a.m., local parents have pushed to get the start time moved back. But Ray Leszcynski at the Dallas News education blog explains why that’s not exactly easy:

Somebody would still have to start early in a district with 176 regular bus routes and 60 specialized routes for its many magnet programs. Changing the three-tiered staggered schedule to two tiers, elementary then secondary, would have a transportation start-up cost of $10.6 million, backed by more than $3.6 million annually.

So even if psychologists and parents agree that pushing back the bell by just a half an hour would make everybody happier, actually implementing that change isn’t a (sleepy) walk in the park.

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