If you’ve ever tried to wake up a teenager at 5:30 or 6:00 on a school day, you know what a battle it can be, and you know you can’t rely on an alarm to rouse them. Sleep cycles shift as children enter adolescence, and it is difficult for teens to fall asleep as early as younger children or older adults. A typical sleep cycle for teenagers begins around 11 p.m. and continues through 8 a.m. When teens have to get up hours earlier than their normal sleep cycle, they become sleep-deprived.
Schools Start Too Early
Nearly 10 percent of high schools start before 7:30 a.m. and 40 percent start before 8 a.m. Only about 15 percent start after 8:30 a.m. When you figure in bus pickup times which can begin before 6 a.m., some teens are having to wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. to get to school on time. Correspondingly, they are released from school early in the afternoon, sometimes before 2 p.m. This schedule is out of sync with parents’ work schedules and younger siblings’ school schedules, creating logistical nightmares for families.
Health Effects of Starting School Early
It’s not just the number of hours of sleep that are important for optimal health; it’s also the timing of sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to many health issues, including weight gain, eating disorders, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, depression, anxiety, reduced immunity, substance abuse and more.
Academic Performance Suffers
Tired kids aren’t learning at their best. Hundreds of schools around the United States have returned to later start times and it has had a measurable impact on graduation rates, physical and mental health, attendance, learning, car crashes, and overall student well-being. Rates of tardiness, truancy, absenteeism and dropping out decline with later start times.
The Economic Factor
Some school districts cite the cost of changing bus schedules or lighting sports facilities for later practices as economic reasons to keep early start times. Wendy Troxel, a scientist from the RAND Corporation, recently shared the results of a study they conducted concerning the economic impact of starting schools at 8:30 or later. Troxel said, “We found nationwide, if such a move were to occur, that this could contribute up to around $83 billion to the U.S. economy over a decade span.” This was based on two projections: Fatal car crashes involving sleep-deprived teens would go down. (Car crashes are the leading cause of U.S. teen deaths.) Also, if students got more sleep, they would do better in school.
Why Change School Start Times?
In addition to the possible economic upside, the CDC urges education policymakers to start middle- and high-school classes later in the morning. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has also weighed in with the same recommendation. Their concerns are related to years of research on teen health, recommending later school start times so teens can thrive both physically and academically.
A research project involving 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming provided substantive data proving that later start times correlate to increased academic performance. It also boosted attendance and test scores, and decreased tardiness, substance abuse and symptoms of depression.
Terra Ziporyn Snider is a medical writer and mother of three who is a national advocate for later start times. “Social norms are at the root of this problem — most people don’t take — adolescent sleep deprivation seriously and don’t see it as a public-health issue. That kind of thinking has to change,” she said.
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