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View: Start High School at 8:30am or Later – To Fit Teen Sleep Cycles

Studies show that teens – who have a later sleep cycle than children or adults – fare better on many measures when high school starts later in the morning, says social worker Susanna Marshland of Kensington.

In the current environment which focuses on improving measurable outcomes for all our schools, there is one simple, cost-effective change that could make a big difference.

The change?  Shift the morning start time for our high schools to 8:30 or later.
There is very clear research indicating that delaying the morning start time for high schools has a major impact not just on improving grades and test scores, but also on improving physical and mental health students and decreasing teen driving accidents.

Medical research is clear that teens experience a "sleep phase shift" during adolescence that means they are alert later into the night than children and adults. The average teen needs 9.25 hours of sleep a night.  When they don't even get drowsy till after 11 and have to arise for an 8 a.m. school start, they are bound to experience the negative consequences of sleep deprivation –  fatigue, irritability, mood swings, depression, and even obesity.  And it shows up at school, in tardiness, truancy, disciplinary issues, mental health problems, and high-risk behaviors.  For more information, see http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/school-start-time-and-sleep.

Conversely, there are several controlled, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate improved academic functioning in schools that delayed their start times; the most notable are the U.S. Air Force Academy study and in Minnesota.  
With later start times, there are dramatic improvements in attendance, continuous enrollment, behavior, alertness, and learning.  Increased sleep also benefits athletic performance, mental health, and health.
Some excerpted findings from the research:

  • A four-year study of more than 6,100 first-semester United States Air Force Academy freshman published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, found a one-hour delay in the first class increased grades by 0.15 standard deviations.
  • In 1999, school districts in Lexington, Kentucky, delayed start times for high school students county-wide by one hour to 8:30 a.m. Average crash rates for teen drivers in the study county in the two years after the change in school start time dropped 16.5%, compared with the two years prior to the change, whereas teen crash rates for the rest of the state increased 7.8% over the same time period.
  • A study published in the September 2010 issue of the journal Sleep found that teenagers who slept less than eight hours per weeknight ate more fatty foods and snacks than adolescents who slept eight hours or more.
  • A 2011 CDC study of 12,154 high school students also found an association between diminished sleep and increased likelihood of health-risk behaviors, including use of cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana, sexual activity, and serious consideration of attempting suicide. 

For an excellent layperson's overview of this issue, I recommend the relevant chapter of Bronson and Merryman's 2009 book, Nurture Shock: The New Thinking About Children, pp. 29-44.  For links to much of the research and to information about other schools and districts who have shifted to later times with positive effects, and a description of the obstacles to overcome, see “The Impact of School Start Times on Adolescent Health and Academic Performance.”

I hope our school board will seriously consider making this change to create school schedules that are centered around the developmental needs of teens, rather than the schedules of adults.  It would improve outcomes not just for individuals but also for the entire district.

Kensington resident Susanna Marshland, LCSW, is a social worker who witnesses first-hand the effects of sleep deprivation in teens. This column is a modified version of a letter she sent to board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 14, 2012 at 01:29 PM
Absolutely right! Please consider signing our petition for a minimum school start time ( http://bit.ly/tWa4dS ). Setting a barebones limit as a basic child protection will make it easier for local schools to move their clocks in the interest of health & learning - something that you'd think would be a "no brainer" but turns out to be riddled with a slew of political and logistical complications. For more information about the growing national coalition uniting around this issue, see http://www.startschoollater.net/.
Kari O February 14, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Thank you so much for covering this important issue! And it's terrific that a social worker with first-hand experience working with a range of teens and families is weighing in. Research suggests that children from disadvantaged families benefit twice as much from a later school start time. For all students and the greater community, this is a health and safety issue -- later start times reduce the risk of parents and teens driving drowsy, and students sleep about an hour more on average -- they do NOT just stay up later (as I would have thought). Unsupervised afternoon time -- when risky behaviors tend to happen -- is reduced as well. It's time to do the right thing and make this change.
Heather Macintosh February 14, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Great article.
LJ February 14, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Who the hek made 8am the school start time to begin with!! It's ridiculous. I think every first period class is wasted on sleepy kids. I remember waking up at 6:45am every morning to get ready; it was a miserable time till college when I could pick 9am or later classes. I am all for 9am start times for children up through high school!!
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 14, 2012 at 02:40 PM
LJ, where I live high schools start at 7:17 a.m.! And in some places they start as early as 7, with bus runs starting as early as 5:20 or so. From what I've been able to tell (I'm a medical writer and historian), school hours were pushed up to these absurd times gradually, due to a combination of busing concerns (recycling bus runs saves $) and budgetary constraints. Given what we now know about teen sleep needs, it's negligent to allow this situation to continue. And contrary to what a lot of people will claim, this is not the way it has always been, nor will the world come to a crashing halt if school start after sunrise!
Michael O'Connor February 14, 2012 at 03:55 PM
The WCCUSD claims that high school start times are dictated by A C Transit schedules. Equity in action.
John Stashik February 14, 2012 at 04:23 PM
You could say that showing up for school at the earlier hour is good training for life. When eventually working for a living they'll have some self discipline to be punctual and keep their jobs.
Vivaldi February 14, 2012 at 05:12 PM
You could say that . . . but you'd be overlooking the scientific research on the physiologically-driven difference between teen sleep cycles and adult sleep cycles.
Vivaldi February 14, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Great article. Mine is 14. The evidence from the KY study is particularly persuasive to this mom.
Heather Macintosh February 14, 2012 at 07:17 PM
People often mention the word "discipline" in connection with early morning (7:00 hour) school start times. It seems like, deep down, our society has a hang-up about sleep and connotations of laziness or lack of discipline. What is with that? Sleep is like water, food (oh, we have hang-ups about eating, too) and shelter, and it's just something we need in order to live. There's nothing "wrong" or undisciplined about having a healthy sleep schedule or a healthy work/life balance. Also, there is a big difference between high school and adult career. Personally, I feel that high school is about learning to learn. These kids (and they are still kids at age 14, right?) are given a core curriculum and then a choice of electives so they can receive a well-rounded education. It's still secondary school. It's the basis for making choices, finding out your interests, and growing up. I don't think of it as career training or necessarily training for anything. It's not boot camp. Please remember that these kids need to be given every opportunity to succeed at school and not expected to work like an adult when they are not, physically or mentally, adults. Starting school at 8 or 8:30am will still provide them with a start time that they will need to be responsible for meeting - but will shift their learning time to one that works better with their age and development. Result: success, health, a more positive future.
Astrid Broberg February 14, 2012 at 10:17 PM
Totally agree with that...even in our adult world sleep is very important to our health...many people seem to overlook thath though
Valerie Snider February 14, 2012 at 11:44 PM
Portola Middle School's start time was pushed up this year - from 8:30 to 8:10. I was told it was due to the AC Transit bus schedules. Kids who have to ride public transit to get to school are even more affected by the early start time.
Lauren Childs February 15, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Thank you Susanna for an excellent article. I'd like to know really what's behind AC Transit's change of schedule this year for ECHS. 8:30 should be class start time, with a half hour for teacher prep time commencing at 8 am. Schedules can be moved around easily to satisfy this.
Russell Gruber February 15, 2012 at 12:56 AM
Let's not forget the most risky time for unsupervised teenagers is somewhere between 3-6pm weekday. Numerous studies correlate with increased teenage pregnancy, first sexual encounter, drug and alcohol use, etc.. in those hours. This has been recognized and well studied. The traditional response has been to fill those hours with extracurricular activities which works to fill the void left by working parents who can't be home in the risky hours after school. However, not all teenagers participate in extracurricular after school activities. Many at risk youth still go home to any empty home and engage in unhealthy activities. Starting school later gives children the proper rest and helps to reduce the risky hours. It's a Win Win!
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 15, 2012 at 01:06 AM
Exactly, Russell! Oddly enough, I'm currently having a debate in the Hercules Patch with someone who worries that starting school later will raise childcare issues (if parents have to go to work at 6 am). It's a strange concern because, as you point out, if there's a childcare issue at all it's for the unsupervised teens after school (as well as today' elementary schoolers, many of whom now start school two hours after the high school kids). However, the fact that these, and a slew of other concerns, inevitably get raised whenever communities seriously consider changing start times, is why I think the problem may require collective action to resolve (see, for example,http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/18/why-are-we-depriving-our-teens-of-sleep/ ). It's also why I created the petition (http://bit.ly/tWa4dS), which I hope people will sign and share. We're trying to get to 5,000 names by National Sleep Awareness Week in March and plan to deliver it to members of the Obama Administration and Congress in Washington, DC.
Giorgio C. February 15, 2012 at 12:47 PM
Are you part of the research team, Kari? I've see you have commented on this nation-wide on the Patch. I am all for anything that enhances the safety for our children. I will add that the "unsupervised afternoon time" that you describe as being conducive to "risky behaviors" is also the time children exercise and do sports.
Ron February 15, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Here is just one more reason this catered too e.g., (Entitlement) generation will be lazier and worse off then all others. FYI...Getting up, showing up to work and being somewhere (even when you do not particularly want to be) is part of life. It teaches responsibility and sets a schedule to follow that most people will have to follow later in the work force. Molly coddling these kids, lack of discipline, lack of manners, poor english etc., is exactly what this generation has inherited. By all means, let little Princess Pittlepot and Jr. Stooper, sleep in the poor weary babies...when they are 40 and living in your basement (without a job) remember that is what you helped instill.
John Stashik February 15, 2012 at 05:00 PM
That's right Ron. Showing up for work on time, even if a shift starts at 2:30 a.m., is part of life. Years ago mandatory military service (i.e. the draft) taught young people some responsibility. NCOs didn't give a damn about when you wanted to do something; you ran on the military's timetable. Now people prefer to whine. Employers find it difficult to hire people with basic 3R skills and also with any work ethic. Even a burger flipper needs to have some responsibility and show for a work shift on schedule. Parents need to do their jobs: raise their offspring properly and by the time the brats are in high school they should be getting ready for the workforce, not griping about being at school too early.
sasha kirkman February 15, 2012 at 05:33 PM
I have been a high school teacher for 15 years and I couldn't agree more with the study. At a school I worked at we tested this theory and changed our start time to 8:45. It made a difference. The kids were just less frazzled and more focused. Along with being more rested, they also had time to eat breakfast (breakfast in the cafeteria started at 8:15). The parents also liked it. This whole obsession with with accountability and job preparedness as it relates wake time is misguided. Teens are very unique and need support from everyone to transition into adulthood. Many teens are so stressed by the demands of high school and the sleep deprivation does not help. Actually many teens who excel in high school are exhausted by the time they go to college and actually have to take a leave or drop out. I have seen this happen often. Teens are not grown ups yet. We need to remember that and rather than focusing on how getting up at the crack of dawn will prepare you for life, we should focus on spending more time with teens, getting to know them and helping them during the frankly often difficult transition into adulthood. That said, I do think that some teens sense of entitlement and slack work ethic is an issue. But again I believe this is due to lack of parent involvement - or rather parents giving in and being permissive rather that really being present in their teen's life.
Erin Kennedy February 15, 2012 at 11:32 PM
I am a parent of three teen boys at the high school. I have seen how they are effected by the earlier start time. They are hardly awake and ready to learn. Breakfast in their bellies at too early in the morning is a problem because they don't want to eat either. This does not help them fuel their brains. If we are to raise our testing scores, the starting times need to be seriously considered. More than half of the school students take the buses because they do not live within walking distance of the school. This ALSO means that they need to board the bus more than an hour before, to get this direction. Why wasn't there more consideration for bus routes for the student population? Perhaps it is time that the school board work directly with AC transit? I would not envy being a teacher for the first block of classes when so many kids are straggling in. Talk about the constant interruptions. When my kids need sleep, I let them stay home from school, missing the classes anyway. What good does it do to have them passed out in the first class? 8:30 or 9 am. gets my vote, and no sooner than that, what's the point really. Yes, 30 minutes does make a big difference at our home.
Maribel Ibrahim March 07, 2012 at 01:18 AM
We only 185 more signatures to help #startschoollater http://t.co/3f9MSCnP  More sleep = better health & more safety.

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