School Starts Too Early, Complain Students and Research

Ask average teens for their opinion on school start times, and they may groan at you, "It's too early!" Parents and school administrators may brush off such a response and attribute it to general teenage laziness or that the respondents stayed up way too late the night before. Here is the wake-up call for public schools across the United States: Research shows most public schools at the secondary level begin too early in the morning. Studies also indicate that the general public may be uneducated about the sleep needs of children. Many parents report their children get the number of sleep hours recommended by health professionals when, in fact, the parents themselves are not clear about what that number is.

Humans develop a sleep-wake cycle which is regulated by light and darkness. The cycles are known as circadian rhythms. According to the National Sleep Foundation, by the time an infant reaches six months of age, the child has developed circadian rhythms. As a child's body grows and changes, so do the circadian rhythms. The most difficult of these times begins with the onset of puberty. When the body experiences these biological changes, a phenomenon known as a "sleep-wake ‘phase delay'" occurs. At this stage, the adolescent is not able to fall asleep as easily as he/she had in the past. As the child ages, the phase delay can last for up to two hours.

Sleep deprivation plagues all ages in our country; however, health officials are most concerned with students who are in middle school and high school. This is because, in addition to the phase delay, these children must also face an onslaught of responsibilities and temptations never known to them in earlier years. Research concludes that when older children get the recommend 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night, they are less likely to experience obesity, drug and alcohol use, behavioral issues, and poor academic performance. Furthermore, "research indicates that the average teenager in today's society has difficulty falling asleep before 11:00 PM and is best suited to wake at 8:00 AM or later." Because of this knowledge, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged public middle and high schools to begin at 8:30 AM or after.

Even though an 8:30 start time is the earliest time a middle school or high school should begin class, most actually begin prior to this time. Of 40,000 public schools studied, "42 states reported that 75 – 100 percent of [their] public schools…started before 8:30 AM." Schools' schedules are determined at the local level; therefore, it is a decision left up to a district's school board. If parents, students, and other school stakeholders share the concern of the American Academy of Pediatrics, then they must approach the school board members to urge them for a change. When teens begin school before 8:30, research shows, there are higher rates of absenteeism, tardiness and a lack of a readiness to learn. More mood disorders and anxiety disorders are found in teens who are getting insufficient sleep. (Most elementary schools begin at times that align with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Too few studies document the effects of school start times on young school-aged children.)

In the studies that have been conducted thus far, researchers have found mental and physical health improvements observed in teens following a school's schedule change to a time recommended by health experts. First of all, teens do not use the extra time staying awake; studies show that there is an increase in the duration of sleep teens get when their school day begins later. Many students even report better sleep quality. Schools reported that they had fewer individuals visiting the school's health clinic. Teachers also report having a greater level of satisfaction with their students after adjusting to the revised school schedule. (Young teachers love the adjustment to, as sleep-wake phase delay can last into a person's twenties.)

While health professionals and child advocates press schools to have later start times, few are doing so. Those in favor of the change see early start times as being a modifiable factor that contributes to poor health in too many kids. According to a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 59% of middle school students and 87% of high school students fail to get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep. This is an issue that has been going on too long. It has been documented that since 2007, one out of three students gets a sufficient amount of sleep.

What keeps schools from making the change that could positively impact kids? For starters, no evidence proves that beginning the school day later will improve academic performance. Other concerns are what may be called "preconceived barriers," or barriers believed to be too cumbersome to work around before even trying. Athletic practices and competitions may be difficult to schedule, or students may miss academic courses to participate in them. For students who want to work after school, the number of hours they would have available to them would be trimmed. Child-care for younger siblings presents other challenges. Adjusting the school schedule would undoubtedly disrupt a family's schedule for one reason or another. Again, these are "preconceived barriers" that are not founded concerns.

Schools pride themselves with doing what is best for kids. If this is the case, are health issues an acceptable consequence for students who have to rise too early? Parents who do not want this for their children need to become active advocates by discussing the research with their school board members and then work towards a change.