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Should Schools Open Later?

Sleep Matters

Your alarm clock rings and you press the snooze button, begging for just five more minutes. Five more minutes of sleep would be excellent, but what if you could have thirty more minutes? Federal officials, doctors, and the national sleep foundation all say that schools open too early. Teens, biologically, cannot fall asleep before eleven o'clock, which is why it is extremely beneficial for teen health for school to begin later.  While teens all over the world would relish an extra thirty minutes of sleep, how will that slight delay affect everything else? Are the health benefits enough to justify the alterations in after school activities, bus schedules, and parent working hours? Some officials agree the change would have a big impact, which would produce extraordinary benefits to teen health, and that the negatives are insignificant. It is imperative to student health that we get more sleep or else our grades and safety will suffer.

Teens are the future, but they need sleep to get there. Research shows that most teens do not get the sleep they need on a daily basis. Teens are at an important stage of their growth and development, meaning they need all the sleep they can get—more than adults and even children. The average teen needs about nine hours of sleep at night to feel well rested and alert.

There are two key factors that determine how sleepy and alert you are at any time throughout the day. This relates to all children, as well as teens and adults. The first factor is how long it has been since you last slept, also known as the sleep-wake balance. The longer you withstand sleep, the more you risk throwing off your sleep-wake balance. This will cause the familiar feeling of being “sleepy.” The second factor is your internal body clock. This controls your body’s 24 hour cycle, formally known as its "circadian rhythm." This is the thing that tells you when you're tired and when you are awake, when you should sleep and when you should work. It is a natural timing system that everyone has. Everyone’s “clock” should cause feelings of sleepiness sometime in the afternoon and feelings of exhaustion at night. However, a deficit in quality sleep can make you feel drowsy at the wrong times of day.  Teens can throw off their body clocks by staying up late at night. Their clocks will also be off if they are always changing when they sleep and wake up. When their internal clocks are not set right, teens can become very sleepy when they should be wide awake. This can cause them to fall asleep at school, at work, or while they are driving. By staying up late completing homework, and waking up early, we risk not only harming ourselves but others. We must listen to the chemicals in our body that tell us we are tired and need rest.

While many adults are quick to blame teens for their bad sleeping habits, it is biologically out of our control. When puberty hits, along with body changes, your circadian rhythms change. This means that melatonin—a hormone that makes you feel tired—isn't released until eleven to twelve o'clock at night. This is in contrast to melatonin levels for younger and older individuals, which begin to affect the body around eight to nine o'clock at night. Teens physically do not feel tired until later, making early morning sleep pivotal for teen development.

Officials say kids need more sleep for better, healthier, and safer academic performance. A new federal report says that high schools start their days too early, not letting teens get the sleep their bodies require for academic success and development. The report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that fewer than one in five middle and high schools in the U.S. start at the recommended 8:30 a.m. start time or later. That start time was recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, based on research that proved young people need more time to sleep in for their health. The data came from a survey, taken in 2012, of 40,000 middle, high, and combined public schools. The report showed that in 42 states, 75% to 100% of public schools start before 8:30 a.m. The average school start time is 8:03 a.m. Louisiana has the earliest start time of 7:40 a.m., and Alaska has the latest start time of 8:33 a.m. Starting school times later allows teens to get the optimal amount of sleep, which is anywhere between eight and a half to nine and a half hours. Data shows that two out of three high school students sleep less than eight hours a night. Medical experts say that a lack of sleep can lead to health issues like weight gain, lower academic performance, and a greater likelihood for substance abuse.

Medical experts and the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, support changes in school start times. Duncan told TIME magazine, “It’s completely a local decision, but I’d like to see more school districts at least consider delaying start times. A later start to the school day could help boost students’ academic performance and reduce tardiness and absenteeism. Our common sense tells us that sleepy students don’t do well in school, but the research also exists to back it up. Studies show that when students are rested, they are more alert and ready to learn.” Delaying school start times could be a difficult task for many schools and the move often causes parents to begin worrying about how it will affect after-school activities.

At Friends Academy, students come from all over. Some live less than 10 minutes away and some, with traffic, could take up to an hour to get to school. That is why our school start time is hard to understand. Some people begin their day as early as five o’clock in the morning. So the school start time of 8:05 is a hard task for many. When I asked multiple students if a half hour delay to the school time would positively impact their routines, they all said yes without hesitation. Some said even five minutes would make a difference. According to Sasha Levin’s article on the direct relationship between sleep and grades, limited amounts of sleep result in a poor school performance. What’s the point for teens to sit in a classroom at eight thirty in the morning if they will retain nothing?

Schools in 44 states have already altered their school start times in order to help teens receive the sleep they need for healthy growth and development. In Alabama, Phenix City schools send the early grades to school 45 minutes earlier, moving them from 9:00 to 7:45, and middle and high school students an hour and 15 minutes later, moving them from 7:45 to 9:00. Superintendent Wilkes says the later start time for older students is an effort to increase student success. The school, since the change, has seen a strong increase in student performance.  Campbell Hall in California took a different approach to combat the issue. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays grades 7-12 of the K-12 school start at 8:50 a.m. On Wednesdays, grades 7-12 start at 9:30 a.m. Classes and lunchtime were slightly shortened. Students now get out at 3:40 p.m. instead of 3:15 p.m. These are all slight changes that are having a large impact on all of the students. Teachers are reporting that their students are more motivated and attentive. Parents and teachers have also seen a decrease of anxiety and stress levels in most students.

Changing school times is tough, but the impact it makes on student health is astonishing. If dozens of schools have made the switch to later start times why can't we? The delay could make students who have, in the past, struggled with school flourish. A discussion should be had to, at least, weigh the pros and cons. No idea is perfect, but this might just work for many tired teens.

One Comment

  1. Carol Van Auken December 1, 2015


    Great reporting on an important issue which needs attention!

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