Research Shows Later School Start Times Benefit All Kids, Not Just Teenagers

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 

The push for later school start times for high schoolers began in earnest a few years ago. The research was clear: teenagers performed better in school when delayed start times allowed them to follow a sleep cycle that was more in line with their natural wake-up times.

And many school districts listened. They wanted to give their high schoolers every possible chance to succeed. But pushing back high school and middle school start times inevitably created logistical concerns. Bussing, after-school activity schedules, and parent work schedules couldn’t simply be pushed back without impacting budgeting and caregiving concerns.

In an effort to implement the recommendations of researchers and the American Medical Association (AMA) with as little disruption as possible, many school districts have chosen to flip high school and elementary start times. Because, well, someone has to take the early bus, and if the research is clear for teenagers, then the early shift falls to the elementary school kids, who may now be starting school before 8 a.m., and often getting on the bus during the 6 a.m. hour.

As it turns out, there is also a growing amount of research showing that early school start times negatively impact elementary school aged children too.

Sleep and Elementary Age Children

According to pediatric sleep specialist Vaishal Shah, MD, school-age children (5 to 12 years old) need 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night. On average, kids these ages are getting 7 to 8 hours, a night—if that. When you add in an earlier school start time, that number will, in all likelihood, dip even lower.

As the amount of sleep these children are getting decreases, the risk for many health problems — including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and injuries — increases.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that children who don’t get enough sleep are also more likely to have attention and behavior problems, which can contribute to poor academic performance in school.

Dr. Weissbluth, an American Pediatrician and sleep disorder specialist at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago says: “Sleep problems among elementary-school-aged children often manifest as behavioral and academic issues at school. But sleep deprivation is rarely recognized as the cause of classroom problems. Sleep is an under appreciated health habit. We all know that junk food is unhealthy for our children, but so is junk sleep. Healthy sleep is to the brain what healthy food is to the body.”

‘Just Go To Bed Earlier’ Doesn’t Always Work

The obvious answer might be: well, then, if those elementary school age kids have to be awake for school an hour earlier, put them to bed an hour earlier. In a perfect world, sure that would be an easy and effective solution. But, the world isn’t perfect and sometimes, often times, an earlier bedtime is simply impossible.

Between after school activities and homework, the endless projects and tests to study for, children, even elementary school age, aren’t done with their “day” until it’s nearly the time they would need to get to bed to get the required amount of sleep. Add in any attempt to eat a home-cooked meal and enjoy a little bit of family time or down time and suddenly a bedtime that allows for 9 to 10 hours of sleep looks completely unworkable.

Additionally, as researchers turn their attention to elementary school age children, studies are showing more and more often that the sleep-wake cycles generally associated with puberty—the natural shift toward feeling and staying awake later into the evening—actually begin occurring in kids at much younger ages. This means, even if the perfect world falls into place, even if activities are over before the sun goes down and dinner is cooked and on the table and the entire family has time to relax and enjoy the meal all before 7 p.m., children still may simply be not ready to go to bed. Their sleep cycles have shifted toward later in the evening, like their adolescent siblings.

What’s The Right Answer?

High schoolers need sleep. Middle schoolers need sleep. Elementary school kids need sleep. (And it goes without saying—moms need sleep…but I digress.) The truth is simply this: kids, of whatever age, need sleep. But there’s no easy solution when it comes to school start times.

Delaying the start time for all schools (high school, middle school, and elementary) will likely result in childcare issues for parents who need to commute to work. Earlier start times will almost necessarily mean pushing back the start times of after-school activities, which sometimes, due to things like space and field availability, already have to start later than any of us would like.

One option school districts can look into is investing in more busses, so more routes can run at once and no children have to take the early bus. But that’s a significant investment that may not be realistic for many districts. Then again, maybe that investment will pay off in the long run—when academic performance, behavior, and overall health begin to improve.

For now, school districts are doing their best and the more we understand the invaluable role sleep plays in all children’s development, the better equipped we will be to make decisions that will enrich and enhance our children’s lives.

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