Later School Start Times for Better Health and Academics
Across the United States, 93% of high schools start at or before 8:30 a.m. Of these, there are schools that start at or before 7:30 a.m., causing these students to wake up even earlier to get ready, eat breakfast and arrive at school on time. According to the CDC (Center for Disease & Control), early school start times are the most important contributor to sleep deprivation among high school age groups. Many parents, administrators and health officials are calling for schools to start later, however, there are many teachers opposed to this change. A group of teachers from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, one of the largest school districts in the country, have voiced their opposition to all proposals of pushing back start times, represented in a survey by the teacher’s union (Dana Hedgpeth and Julie Zauzmer). These survey results were highlighted in The Washington Post, stating that “Nearly half of the district’s 12,000 teachers responded to the survey, and 63% favored not changing high school bell times”. While science seems to argue the opposite, it is important to consider the perspective of our educators as they are pillars in our education system. However, I believe there are enough positive impacts that later start times have on students overall health and academic achievement to consider this change. In fact, many surveys and research have shown that later start times improve overall health, align better with teenagers’ natural sleep cycles and increase students’ overall attendance.
According to The National Sleep Foundation, teenagers in middle school and high school require 8 to 9 and half hours of sleep each night. However, research has shown that most teenagers average fewer than 7 hours of sleep on school nights. As a result, I believe there is a direct correlation between early school start times and the effects of sleep deprivation. The impact of sleep deprivation in students results in their inability to stay awake and learn at school, as well as contributing to drowsy driving, irritability and sometimes, violence. A 2018 study published in the journal Science Advances found that when the start time of school was pushed back, students were able to increase the amount of sleep they got by a half hour to a full hour. The study ultimately concluded that, “Given the widespread negative effects sleep deprivation has on adolescent physical and mental health, our study points to the value of a measure such as delaying the school start time toward improving teenage sleep”. This survey, including countless others, makes it clear that students need more sleep for their mental and physical health, and academic learning. The positive impact of additional sleep will decrease the effects of sleep deprivation, including daytime drowsiness and increasing their ability to be alert while in a learning environment. Ultimately, moving back start times will improve students overall health.
It is also clear that the quality of sleep, and when students sleep, is just as important as the quantity of sleep. Teenagers’ natural sleep cycles tend to track to later bedtimes as they are busy with, after school activists, work and homework. As found in a recent study, most teenagers fall asleep around 11 p.m. or later, because the change in their internal clocks make them feel awake at night, even though they are really exhausted. Ensuring a teenager goes to bed earlier to achieve the recommended hours of sleep per night does not only affect their natural sleep cycle, but it is also realistically impossible. This is further explained by Mary A. Carskadon, MD, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, who stated that “Even without the pressure of biological changes (natural sleep cycles), if we combine an early school starting time–say 7:30 a.m., with a modest commute, makes 6:15 a.m. a viable rising time–with our knowledge that optimal sleep needs is 9 1/4 hours, we are asking that 16-year olds go to bed at 9 p.m.”. With it being a simple math equation accounting for bedtime, sleep time, rising time and school time, many schools across the country are now working to synchronize school clocks with students’ natural sleep cycles. This enables school-aged teenagers to be their most alert hours and achieve their full academic potential. On the contrary, when teens are not in school during their most alert hours it impacts their ability to pay attention, and at worst, fall behind. Additionally, CDC has outlined that “During puberty, adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning as a result in shifts in biological rhythms”. As such, it is important for schools to consider a later start time that accounts for natural sleep cycles, respectfully allowing teenagers the best chance for long term success.
Finally, with later start times improving students’ overall health and ability to learn, research also points to an increase in attendance and a decrease in absences when school times are pushed back (Kelly and Evans). The positive correlation of later school times with improved attendance was found in a 4-year observational study conducted at a state funded high school. While very few studies have used start times later than 9:00 a.m., this 4-year study published in Frontiers Human Neuroscience in 2017, used a starting time of 10 a.m. As a result of later start times, the number of absences dropped significantly from 15.4 to 11.3 when the start time was changed to 10 a.m. During the second year, the number of absences dropped even further from an average of 11.3 absences to 7.9 or a decrease of 48% in average absences in just 2 years (Kelly and Evans). In the study’s this year of observation, the start time went back to 8:50 a.m., and as such, the average number of absences rebounded to 11.2, well above the level in the previous year. This landmark study reinforces the positive correlation and possible causation of start times with school absences. Whether the later start time allowed for students to get more sleep, or it aligned better with the natural sleep cycles, it signals that students were able to make it to school on time. The long term impact of a students health, and their ability to attend school during mental alert hours, is critical to a generations academic success and impact their educators will have during this pivotal period in time.
In conclusion, there is a tremendous amount of research that reinforces moving start times back would benefit students’ overall health and academic performance. While it may not be the most convenient option for parents and teachers schedules, it is clear the health and academic benefits to students outweigh any inconvenience it might cause. Additionally, there is significant research that underlines the associated and long-term health risks of sleep deprivation. With later school start times, our education system has an opportunity to improve not only the health of students today, but in the future. Additionally, we have an opportunity to make a positive impact on their academic success by giving them every opportunity to excel. Unfortunately, with 93% of our school systems starting before 8:30 a.m., we have a lot of opportunity for change and improvement.
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