This was written by Pamela Thacher, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University, and Serge Onyper, an associate professor of psychology at the New York school. Their 2016 study, published in the academic journal Sleep, found that delaying school start times can significantly improve tardiness and disciplinary problems in the classroom.
By Pamela Thacher and Serge Onyper
You wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for work, and if you have teenage children, you wake them up too, because they usually need to get to school by 7:30 a.m. (if not earlier). Unfortunately, kids then sleepwalk their way to classes and really don’t start functioning till lunchtime.
There is little doubt that youth, especially teens, are “wired” physiologically and neurologically to prefer distinctly later sleep times than those preferred by adults. We’ve known about biorhythms for decades.
The science is out there, so why should it surprise us that early school start times affect children’s and teenagers’ health, safety and academic performance? Some school districts have pushed back high school start times, but most haven’t. Why not?
Here’s a thumbnail of the research:
- We have studied start time changes over a full year, noting changes to sleep, mood, health and academics in a high school that delayed start time by 45 minutes. We found that later start times lead to improved sleep, as well as reductions in tardiness and dramatic improvements to behavior problems.
- Other studies have shown that later start times are associated with improved attention rates, higher student retention, improved mood and health, and even a reduction in vehicle accidents during school commute times.
- And another study found that the ability to concentrate and pay attention may improve when schools start later.
- There is some limited evidence that student grades may improve, although the findings from our study did not reveal improvements in standardized test scores or academic achievement. This was perhaps because many variables can impact grades, such as class size, teacher quality, parent support, school facilities, student commitment and more — none of which change when schools delay start times.
Resistance to changing start times has several sources. Some parents and teachers say that students need to operate on adult schedules, in preparation for post-high-school life. These parents and teachers therefore may resist changes because they fear that later start times amount to “spoiling” or “coddling” students who can’t function easily early in the morning.
Then there are perceived (and actual) increases in transportation costs. Although school districts might spend more because they have to change bus schedules, this isn’t a certainty. For example, some schools have kept transportation costs level by consolidating bus routes across all district schools.
Objections also arise when schools consider after-school athletics programs: Later start times may mean that athletic fields might need to be lit. And later schedules might result in early dismissals to accommodate athletic travel to games or to special practices. With flexibility on the part of the staff and coaches, schools have found that these obstacles can also be overcome.
It’s important to keep in mind that the data clearly shows that what is gained in schools or districts that switched to later start times outweighs the costs: Students function better academically, physically and emotionally when start times are after 8:30 a.m.
Perhaps we have reached a tipping point when U.S. schools finally will wake up themselves and make this important change. At least, it seems there is reason for optimism.
For the first time in its history, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine last year issued a position statement, stating that middle and high school students should start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the past two years have all recommended restoring traditional — as in later — school start times.
These professional organizations are basing their stances on compelling research showing unmistakable benefits to schoolchildren from middle school to high school. It’s time for parents, teachers and school administrators to listen and act.