If you find you're having trouble getting your teen up and out the door in time to arrive before the late bell tolls at high school, you're not alone. It turns out the early high school start time is not in line with teens' development and biology—and leads to a lack of sleep in high schoolers. In fact, beginning high school classes at such an early start time can harm teens' health and academic performance.
We tried sending the dog in to lick him awake. We tried threats, bribes, and a liberal dose of guilt, too (I’d burst into tears at fairly regular intervals). We set progressively earlier alarms, before calling that experiment a failure at 4:55am. But nothing my husband or I did could get our son, Charles, on the 6:50am high school bus more often than a few times a month. So there I’d be, driving him to school, sweaty and breathless, careening into the parking lot when first period was half over. (I usually drove him, because when my husband did, he’d bellow at him the whole way. I got his frustration, believe me, but was afraid he’d get in an accident.)
For four years this went on, until, blessedly, my son graduated last June—but not before having to take night-school classes for habitually failing first period. A mere month after those insanely stressful mornings finally ended, Charles began working a shift that starts at 9:30am. He gets up on his own at 8am, fixing himself eggs and toast. He leaves promptly at 8:45am every day, allowing a little extra time for traffic.
Really? I thought.
As mystifying as it seemed to me at first, my experience, it turns out, squares with science. Research has shown that early school start times (7:21am at our Long Island high school, for example) simply don’t mesh with teenage biology, and that starting even just 60 minutes later has positive effects on mental and physical health, and on academic performance, too. Yet the vast majority of public schools, including in our area, resist making the change.
Rude Awakenings: Teens Need More Sleep
Despite their appearance, high school kids are just that—kids who are still growing. Adolescents need 8½-9½ hours of sleep a night, an almost laughable number when compared with day-to-day reality. Ruth Angstadt’s son, Kurt, a 10th-grader at West Babylon High School in Suffolk County, is a prime example. “He has soccer practice after school, then dinner and hours of homework. By the time he showers and winds down, it’s after eleven. Midnight is not unheard of,” she laments. Kurt is up at 6:15am (5:45am if he needs to get to school early for extra help). Do the math.
Contrary to the assumption that teens are just being, well, teens by refusing to budge from bed, it has much more to do with biology than rebellion. A shift in their internal clocks at puberty signals the sleep hormone melatonin to kick in later at night. That’s why the seemingly simple solution of enforcing an earlier bedtime doesn’t really work. That internal shift makes it hard for teens to fall asleep before 11pm, or wake up much before 8am. They may get in bed and turn off the light at your insistence, but in all likelihood, they’re not sleeping.
“The fact that these circadian rhythm shifts appear in adolescent mammals as well as adolescent humans suggests that there’s more to the story here than irresponsibility,” says Stacy Simera, communications director for StartSchoolLater.net.
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The Benefits of Later High School Start Times
Teens need enough sleep, not only to stave off the grumpies, but also to effectively learn once they get to school. Schools with the first period bell ringing at 8:30am or later—which eliminates more than 85 percent of U.S. public high schools, according to federal data from the 2015-16 school year—wind up with better attendance and graduation rates. One study comparing schools in seven states, including New York, found that instituting an 8:30am start increased attendance rates from 90 to 94 percent and graduation rates from 79 to 88 percent. These schools’ students have more downtime too, according to a separate study recently published in December in the journal Sleep Health. It found that when high school classes started at 8:30am or later, teens spent 46 more minutes in bed, on average, compared with peers whose schools started between 7 and 7:30am.
Meanwhile, a study of middle-school students in North Carolina found that a one-hour delay in start time increased math test scores by 3.3 percentile points and reading test scores by 3.7 points. “As someone who has studied educational interventions, I truly believe that this is the single easiest and least expensive way to improve student outcomes,” said the study’s author, Santa Clara University economist Teny M. Shapiro.
In fact, none other than the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2014 saying that “insufficient sleep in adolescents [is] an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.” The following year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged education policymakers to start school later. “Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” stated Anne Wheaton, the lead author and epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Population Health.
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Both the CDC and the AAP noted that sleep-deprived teens not only have poorer educational outcomes, but also are more prone to car accidents, obesity, and depression.
Schools Successfully Starting Classes Later
The realization is spreading that it’s harmful to force teens to rise with the birds. Some schools have adopted later start times, though there’s no hard data on the trend. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to track how many schools are talking about changing or have changed start times because there is no mandatory reporting. Our lack of tracking start times reflects our level of systemic lack of awareness,” Simera says.
But the Glen Falls School District is one that made the switch. In 2013, the high school pushed back its start time from 7:45am to 8:25am, and saw better student outcomes. The South Orangetown Central School District is another that opted to try a later start. “Our high school and middle school went from a 7:30am start to 8:15. It’s soooo much better,” says Stephanie Mullen, a mom of three in Blauvelt. “Teens are not adults, and there’s no point in forcing them to adapt to an adult schedule.” At Islip High School in Suffolk County, upperclassmen can opt out of first period and come in 40 minutes later, provided they’ll have enough credits to graduate, which most do.
Why Don’t More Schools Make a Change to Start Later?
Like so many other things having to do with public school systems, the current situation is largely driven by budgets. The start times of high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools have to be staggered in order to keep the number of buses and drivers—and costs—to a minimum. And high schools tend to start earliest, often to allow the youngest students to wait at the bus stop in broad daylight and to have teens back home before their little brothers and sisters arrive, an arrangement some working parents depend on.
Aside from increased transportation costs, rejiggering the start times of a district’s schools would mean renegotiating contracts, not only with transportation providers, but with teachers and school staff, including sports coaches.
Another consideration: The traffic that school buses and traveling school sports teams would face if their schedule were closer to rush hour. “As it was, it would take Joey an hour to get back when his away volleyball games ended at four. Imagine if they ended at five?” says Marie Iorio, a mom of two in New Hyde Park in Nassau County. A situation like that could hamper a child’s participation in extracurriculars or sports, which—who knows?—could be the thing that makes or breaks their college applications.
Other parents are simply neutral on the issue. “I have mixed feelings about late start,” says Gina Seymour, the library media specialist at Islip High School. “Yes, the kids are tired, but as a mom I do like to see my children off to school before I leave for work, rather than leave with them still in bed.”
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While the premise of later school start times for teens is widely accepted by those familiar with the facts, there’s another stumbling block to overcome: human nature. People, parents included, tend to rally around causes that affect them directly. That means that hard-won advocates graduate along with their kids every four years, so it’s a constant battle for groups such as Start School Later to keep re-educating parents and maintain the grassroots pressure.
None of this is to say, of course, that opening high schools an hour later is the lone magic bullet to kids’ sleep issues and school success. And some kids fare better than others with the current arrangement. Jennifer Geddes, a mom of two teens in Manhattan, is one of the lucky ones. Her daughter’s high school starts at 8:30am. But while Geddes says the late start is great, “Fiona could start earlier than that,” she shares. “She’s up and ready to go well before she has to leave.”
Barring a sweeping change to start times, what are families to do? Promoting good sleep-hygiene habits for kids, such as avoiding caffeine in the evening, shutting down electronics before getting into bed, and keeping to roughly the same sleep schedule on weekends, will help them regardless of when school begins. That, combined with continuing efforts to educate parents, school boards, and politicians on the benefits of letting teens sleep later, may ultimately yield eye-opening results for our chronically weary kids.