Getting back on a school schedule can be a difficult adjustment after the lazy days of summer, especially for teens.
Experts say adolescents are biologically wired to stay up later than younger kids, and having to get up early for school contributes to them being chronically short on sleep. But delaying school start times can help.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has called insufficient sleep in adolescents a public health issue and recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. But as of 2017, the average start time for public high schools nationwide was 8 a.m., and 10% of schools started before 7:30.
This fall, California became the first state to mandate delayed school start times, with public high schools required to start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m., and middle schools not before 8 a.m. Supporters say the change will not only let California teens and tweens catch a few extra Z’s, but will bring many other important benefits.
“There are resulting improvements across the board: grades improve, attendance goes up and graduation rates go up fairly significantly,” says Lisa L. Lewis, a parenting journalist and the author of “The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive.”
Opponents to later start times say they can cause significant logistical issues with bus routes, parent work schedules and extracurriculars like after-school sports.
But advocates say the benefits are worth the cost. States like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering also making the change.
“Studies have shown over and over that teens get more sleep when school starts later, with research-based benefits to their physical and mental health, academic performance and beyond,” says Elinore Boeke, communications director for Start School Later, a nonprofit organization that lobbied for California’s new law.
California’s implementation of the new rules comes at a time when many teens’ sleep habits have changed for the worse due to the pandemic.
Here are some of the benefits of later school start times:
— Better mental and physical health.
— Improved academic outcomes.
— Reduced risk of car accidents and injuries.
— Less tardiness.
Better Mental and Physical Health
Teenagers need eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, but almost 60% of middle schoolers and more than 70% of high schoolers don’t get enough sleep on school nights, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In adolescence, changes to the body’s “sleep drive” and a delayed release of the sleep hormone melatonin make it more difficult for teens to fall asleep early.
Research shows that when school starts later, teens get more sleep, says Shelby Harris, a sleep psychologist and clinical associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, with “many adolescents able to obtain at least eight hours of sleep per night.” That leads to better physical and mental health, including decreased rates of depression and anxiety and less caffeine use, Harris says.
Teens who reported they got at least eight hours of sleep per night were more likely to say they have good overall health and less likely to report being depressed or using caffeine and other substances, per a study by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota.
“Kids are more likely to eat breakfast, and teachers find kids smiling and awake to learn in first period,” Boeke says.
Improved Academic Outcomes
When school starts later, “mood, academics, attendance and graduation rates all improve,” says Harris.
For instance, one study by the National Sleep Foundation found that both attendance and graduation rates “significantly improved” in schools that delayed their start times to 8:30?a.m. or later.
Studying middle schools in Wake County, North Carolina, with variable start times, economics professor Finley Edwards found that starting school an hour later would raise test scores an average of 2 percentile points in math and 1.5 points in English. Effects were larger for lower-performing students.
Using Edwards’ methodology, but on a national scale, the authors of another study estimated that National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores for eighth graders would increase as much as 8 points if schools started one hour later, which many experts say is equivalent to almost a full grade-level increase.
Jessica Baltaxe, an 11th grader at Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, California, is starting school a half-hour later this year, and says students like being able to sleep in.
“A half-hour doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it makes a big difference,” she says.
“Many students go to bed late because of the demands of their coursework and extracurriculars, so by providing extra time in the morning it sets them up to have a more productive day.”
[READ: Tackling Math Anxiety.]
Reduced Risk of Car Accidents and Injuries
Multiple studies have shown that both overall car crash and distracted driving crash rates drop significantly with delayed school start times, which can reduce mortality and morbidity in adolescents.
Research on delayed school start times also show that there are fewer sports-related injuries, Harris says.
Several studies show the importance of adequate sleep for student athletes.
“Getting a good night’s sleep and getting it at the right time has been shown to improve student athletes’ accuracy and reaction time and significantly lessen their risk of injury,” Boeke says.
Hansika Daggolu is in 11th grade at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, California, where the start of the school day has moved from 8 a.m. to 8:30. She’s looking forward to the change.
“I think having later school start times would be especially beneficial for me and other kids who have after-school commitments like sports. We will be getting more sleep, so we will be able to perform better,” Daggolu says.
Regular tardiness can be an issue for sleep-deprived teens. But starting school later makes it easier for students to arrive on time.
“Repeated studies show that starting secondary schools at 8:30 a.m. or later significantly boosts on-time attendance,” says Joy Wake, advocacy director for Start School Later.
She notes this is especially so for financially disadvantaged or lower-performing students who already face obstacles in getting enough sleep and getting to school on time.
“Being well-rested boosts emotional resiliency,” Lewis says. “When teens get more sleep, they’re better equipped emotionally to deal with all of the daily stressors.”
While tardiness may not have been an issue for Baltaxe, she says the later start times make a big difference for busy students like herself.
“Before, I was still waking up during class, but now I feel more prepared to take on the day,” Baltaxe says.
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