Our Schools Need To Implement Later Start Times ASAP

by Christine Organ

Like most families in America, mornings in our house are a bit, shall we say, chaotic. There are lunches to pack, shoes to find, and everyone is in a morning-ish mood. Fortunately, though, my kids don’t need to be at school until 9 a.m. so our chaotic mornings aren’t due to a start time that coincides with the roosters’ wake-up call. They are mostly just due to laziness and slow-movers.

Our school is in the minority, however. My nieces’ elementary school starts at 7:45 a.m., and most middle and high schools around the country also start before 8 a.m. Since students often walk or ride the bus to school, they may be leaving the house before 7 a.m. — which means they literally up before the sun. That is just too damn early, especially for teens.

It isn’t just parents lamenting early school start times, either. For decades, sleep experts and health professionals have known that making teenagers wake before dawn is unhealthy and counterproductive. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that teens need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night, but because their “internal clocks” function differently than other age groups, it’s harder for them to fall asleep earlier in the evening. As kids age, they are falling asleep later, but going to school earlier, which means tweens and teens are living in a perpetual state of exhaustion.

This constant state of tiredness isn’t just harmful to their health, either; it’s also hurting their education. Research has found that shifting school start times later in the morning improved attendance, test scores, and grades in a variety of subjects. Schools that started later also saw a decrease in tardiness, substance abuse, and symptoms of depression. Some even reported a significant decrease in the number of teen car crashes.

Health professionals have been calling on education policymakers to push back school start times for years. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to implement later start times, and in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed suit, urging policymakers to push back start times for middle- and high-school classes to help teens get sufficient sleep for their physical and education development.

The evidence has become undeniable, and the momentum for later start times has been increasing. Last summer, the American Medical Association announced its recommendation for later school start times for teens, and earlier this year, a position statement was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine touting the benefits of later start times.

“Early school start times make it difficult for adolescents to get sufficient sleep on school nights, and chronic sleep loss among teens is associated with a host of problems, including poor school performance, increased depressive symptoms, and motor vehicle accidents,” said Nathaniel Watson, MD, the statement’s lead author.

In late-April, the non-profit Start School Later gathered world-renowned sleep experts, school leaders, teachers, counselors, policymakers, health professionals, and economists from around the world at a conference in Washington, D.C. to figure out how to convince schools that sleep matters. According to Huffington Post, the conference brought together people who rarely cross paths but are aligned in their interest of protecting kids’ health by advocating for later school start times. Speakers emphasized the need for changes to start at the district and state level.

In other words, parents need to make their voices heard — and school districts and legislators need to start listening.

Let’s be honest, change is always hard. There will always be people who fall into the “this is the way it’s always been done” camp. But just because we adults are exhausted all the time, that doesn’t mean our kids need to be, and the always-been-done-way isn’t always the right way. There’s room for improvement as our knowledge expands.

Fortunately, several school districts are starting to realize the negative impact of early start times, and making changes to their school day. One such district is my own local school district in suburban Chicago. Earlier this year, the school district unanimously approved a two-year pilot program that shifts the school day to 8:15 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. (from a 7:30 to 2:45 school day) beginning in the 2017-18 school year. To implement the changes, the school district also shortened class periods and lunch by two to five minutes.

Change might be hard, but it isn’t impossible. And if it’s going to benefit our kids’ physical, emotional, and educational development, why wouldn’t we make the changes? Kudos to my local school district for taking the health of our children seriously and pushing back the start times — and to other schools around the country that are doing the same. With any luck — and along with the pressure of more parents, doctors and other advocates — more schools will start prioritizing teens’ sleep needs too.

Now if only we could get our bosses to make sleep a priority too.