Later School Start Times For Teenagers Benefit Everyone — So Why Aren’t We Doing It?

by Julie Scagell
Originally Published: 
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Starting school later in the day benefits students and the economy

There has long been a debate about what time is the “right” time for kids to go to school. It makes sense for younger elementary school kids to sleep longer and go to school later but what about our middle and high schoolers?

According to a new study, delaying start times until after 8:30am for all ages has major benefits – not only for our kid’s mental and physical well-being, but for the economy overall.

One of the more pervasive arguments for early start times is around transportation – schools use the same buses for elementary, middle and high school — thus start times need to be staggered or an investment in additional transportation would need to be made. But what is the cost when we force our kids up and out of the house before 7 a.m. to learn and retain information when they are exhausted?

“The significant economic benefits from simply delaying school start times to 8.30 a.m. would be felt in a matter of years, making this a win-win, both in terms of benefiting the public health of adolescents and doing so in a cost-effective manner,” study co-author Wendy Troxel said to the Chicago Tribune. Astonishingly, the Tribune reports that the net nationwide benefit from increased academic performance and lower car crash rates would reach $9.3 billion a year. That’s a ton of money.

The RAND Corporation recently conducted a study that looked at moving middle school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later and found “after a decade, the study showed that delaying schools start times would contribute $83 billion to the U.S. economy.”

More importantly for parents, this increase can contribute to higher academic performance of students (leading to higher life earnings) and reduced car crash rates resulting from lack of sleep.

So why aren’t we delaying start times already?

New start times would come at an additional cost to school districts, of course. It means new bus schedules and a charge per school for additional infrastructure like outdoor lighting to support later after-school activity times. But the study proves these costs pretty much pale in comparison to the benefits students would get from the extra sleep.

I couldn’t agree more. My middle schooler is on the bus by 6:40 a.m. every morning, which means he is up by 6 a.m. He also plays hockey and there are nights he gets off the ice at 10pm (because they give later ice time to older students). He is lucky to get seven hours a sleep most school nights. The result is one crabby kid who struggles to concentrate.

Teenagers in general are wired to go to bed late and sleep in. My high school-age daughter who doesn’t have late sports and gets on the bus an hour later at 7:30 a.m. still struggles with the same sleep deprivation no matter how much I try to enforce an early bedtime.

And while some would say by this logic, delaying school start times will just cause teenagers to stay up later, research doesn’t support it. A systematic review published last year looked at just that and found that delaying the start of school from 25 to 60 minutes corresponded with increased sleep time of 25 to 77 minutes per night.

Basically this means kids went to bed at the same time regardless of when they had to wake up, so delayed start times allowed them to get much needed shut-eye.

The school start-time issue overall is pervasive. It’s no secret most of our kids are exhausted. They are over-scheduled, always plugged in and need more sleep. And though it would take great effort to pass this kind of policy change, according to these and many other studies, delaying school start times may begin to address at least part of the problem.

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