Yawning students and a starting bells ringing before 7:30 a.m. are not uncommon sights and sounds at schools around the country each day. But although these early start times may work well with parental, bus, and after-school schedules, there’s significant evidence that these start times are detrimental to the physical health and academic well-being of students, especially older students.
Many communities are considering or enacting later start times for their middle and/or high schools to allow students more sleep each day. Lack of sleep and tiredness at school among teenage students has been tied to difficulty concentrating, worse academic performance, weight gain, mood swings, anxiety, depression, and even driving accidents.
By starting school later in the day, communities aim to let teenagers get a fuller night of sleep and come to class well-rested and ready to learn. But critics of the later start times argue that students can adapt to the early start by going to bed earlier, and point to the cost of these changes on the school’s budget and student time after school.
The rationale of recent middle and high school start time changes lies in the biology of students. As students in middle and high school go through puberty, their natural sleep cycle — or circadian rhythm — change as well, The University of California Los Angeles’ Sleep Center explained. Whereas most young children become tired around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., during and after puberty, teens don’t become tired until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.
In addition to this natural bedtime shift, teenagers also require more sleep overall than adults do. UCLA explains that the average teenager needs about nine hours of sleep for a healthy night of rest.
There are a number of factors that make going to bed at a “natural” time and getting a full night of sleep difficult for teenagers, including family, social, and work obligations, but UCLA notes that school is one of the biggest culprits. Schoolwork can affect a student’s bedtime, while early start times limit full nights of sleep and can send a healthy circadian rhythm into disarray.
“Most schools start class very early in the morning. After a long day at school, teens may also have to study for hours at home. An early start and a lot of homework can combine to make it hard for them to get to sleep on time,” according to UCLA.
Because a lack of sleep has been associated with student health issues and academic trouble, many parents and school administrators are striving to use what we now know about teenage sleep to change the way schools operate. Rather than eliminating homework and studying, some communities have opted to start school later, for older students in particular.
One recent example is Township High School District 214, which is planning to have a later start time for its six high schools soon. For the 2017-2018 academic year, the start time of the high schools will shift almost an hour later, going from the current time at about 7:30 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. The calendar committee, which made the recommendation, also has adjusted the times of extracurricular activities and sports, including for some to occur prior to school.
The planned change was made official after a survey of 6,500 students, parents, and administrators in the community examined sleep patterns in the schools. About 61% of the students surveyed reported difficulty in waking up and going to school.
“From the very beginning, we were looking at how to improve the health and well-being of our students and staff so they can be good global citizens, and have success in the long term … We want to be sure that we’re not over-stressing our kids. We’re trying to ensure balance, and mental, physical and emotional well-being,” District 214 Superintendent David Schuler told The Chicago Tribune.
But later start times is not a universally accepted change. The Twin Falls School District in Idaho undertook a similar schedule change, but with mixed results. Although the high school will start at 8:00 a.m. starting next year, the middle school will actually be starting about 10 minutes earlier at 7:30 a.m., according The Times-News.
Brady Dickinson, director of operations for Twin Falls schools, said that student sleep research was taken into account in the decision making process, but was applied to the later high school start time for older students rather than the new middle school start time.
But the change, which also followed a community survey, is being met with mixed reviews. While the later start may benefit students by accommodating their adjusting natural sleep cycle, critics of the change maintain that the logistics of enacting the later start time are problematic. For example, there are concerns about teens driving while tired, traveling in the dark after school, and tardiness. Others are concerned with the impact of later start times on after school jobs, opportunities for athletic and extracurricular activities, and homework and study time. Many parents also face difficulties adapting their work schedules to match up with student’s with later start times.
Aside from parent and student concerns, a major effect of these start time changes is the impact on the school budget. In Greenwich, Connecticut, where the school district proposed to move the high school start time back 45 minutes to 8:15 a.m. starting late next year, administrators are preparing for a significant cost increase. By shifting the start time, the district will require 48 more buses at a cost of $3.7 million more than was required this year. The newspaper noted that this represents a 2% increase in the district’s entire budget.
There are alternate proposals for a schedule shift that would require fewer buses, but could still add more than $2 million to the operational costs. The board will vote this winter before any changes are finalized.
Despite the potential cost increase, school board member Peter von Braun told the newspaper the potential benefits of allowing teens more sleep may be worth it.
“This has a chance of substantially improving student performance,” von Braun said. “I think we have to make that point very carefully and very strongly that there are substantial benefits to come from this. That puts the cost into some sort of perspective.”
Despite the immediate inconveniences and expanded transportation costs, sleep research indicates that later later school start times for teenagers can carry significant benefits.
By allowing middle and high school students extra time to sleep that corresponds with their natural circadian rhythms and sleep requirements, schools may be able to help students avoid the lack of concentration and academic problems that correspond with tiredness and insufficient sleep.