Should high schools have a later start time?

Thanks to more and more research and data on living a healthy lifestyle, most people are aware that exercise, drinking plenty of water, and eating a balanced diet are important aspects. Still, what seems to get lost is that getting enough sleep is just as important. Teenagers are least likely of any other age group to get the recommended amount of sleep, which is about 9 1/4 hours according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Since teenagers are the age group that tends to get the least amount of recommended sleep, this discussion will focus on high schoolers.

In high school, mandated curriculum dictates the subjects and content that are taught to students. They learn the core subjects – Mathematics, Science, English, Social Studies – as well as Foreign Language, Music, Art, Health, and Physical Education. There is a lot of material that is covered in each subject during the school day, which typically starts sometime between 7:25 and 7:45am, depending on the school district in this area. The NSF states, “Young people who do not get enough sleep night after night carry a significant risk for drowsy driving ; emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence; health complaints; tobacco and alcohol use; impaired cognitive function and decision-making; and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics.” With the increased education about concussions, we have learned that the brain continues to develop until about the age of 25 – one of the reasons why concussions in high school and college sports are such a big deal. Sleep deprivation in high schoolers can have lasting effects on brain development, like a concussion would, and could affect the ability to focus or retain information, social interactions, lead to chronic depression, weaken the immune system, be at a higher risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. I sure hope that the lasting effects of sleep deprivation is covered in at least one of the subject areas in class, like Health or Physical Education.

There are a variety of reason why teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep. Early start times for school, busy after school club/sport schedules, heavy homework 8 to 9 hoursassignments, job and family obligations, social stresses, and changing biological changes all contribute to the lack of sleep. The NSF states that all children need about 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep each day. However, teenagers are biologically more alert after 8pm and may not feel drowsy until after 11pm. This is due to biological changes in teenagers, which alter sleep cycles. The combination of early school start times, later drowsiness, and at least 8 1/2 hours needed for sleep does not seem to set high school students up for enough sleep. And, sleeping all day Saturday and Sunday, when there is no school, does not replenish missing sleep. Like binge eating or drinking is not healthy, binge sleeping is unhealthy as well. Since biological clocks and needed sleep are not something that we can change, that leaves school start times as something that should be considered.

The NSF cites a study conducted by Mary Carskadon in 1998 evaluating the amount of sleep in 9th and 10th graders. “Given that the primary focus of education is to maximize human potential, then a new task before us is to ensure that the conditions in which learning takes place address the very biology of our learners.” Mary Carskadon, PhD, Director of E.P. Bradley Hospital Research Laboratory and professor in Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University School of Medicine. Carskadon further states in her study, “Even without the pressure of biological changes, if we combine an early school starting time–say 7:30 am, which, with a modest commute, makes 6:15 am a viable rising time–with our knowledge that optimal sleep need is 9 1/4 hours, we are asking that 16-year olds go to bed at 9 pm. Rare is a teenager that will keep such a schedule. School work, sports practices, clubs, volunteer work, and paid employment take precedence. When biological changes are factored in, the ability even to have merely ‘adequate’ sleep is lost”.  An NSF poll found the 59% of 6th-8th graders and 87% of high schoolers did not get the recommended amount of sleep. Parents, teachers, and even coaches do not emphasize adequate sleep often enough, if at all. Sleep is not an option; it is a necessity of life, like food and water.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends shifting middle- and high-school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. “Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.” Dr. Judith Owens, MD, FAAP, key author in the September 2014 policy statement “School Start Times for Adolescents” states, “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life. Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.” 40% of American high school start before 8am and 20% of American middle school start at 7:45am or earlier.

later school start time

So given all of this information about the importance of sleep for healthy students, why wouldn’t middle and high schools start their days later? “Many districts are reluctant to change their schedules because they see the shift as too expensive and disruptive.“, states Lisa Lewis from the LA Times. Many communities have schedules that revolve around the school day. Bell schedules, transportation, daycare/babysitting needs, after school athletics and clubs, perhaps business hours would all be affected by a later school start time. For families that depend on their teenager working after school or have to provide their own transportation for school, a later start time may not be practical. Another expense to the school district would be amending the faculty and staff union contracts. Anyone who has worked in a school district knows that changing anything requires several meetings, appointed committees, and relentless bickering – not always taking into consideration the benefit to the student, but arguing over how it affects the staff. Hopefully a well thought out and meticulously researched plan to implement a delay in school start times would lessen any arguments against it.

In 2014, the NSF started working with some U.S. Representatives to introduce legislation that will address school start times and teenage health and performance. A later school start time will not automatically solve the tired-teenager problem and does not mean that they can stay up later, but it could reduce the chronic sleep deprivation issue among teenagers. It would take the collaboration of many people, like parents, school boards, building principals, business owners, coaches, students, bus drivers, etc, to accomplish this. The individuals affected most by a later school start time should start the conversation in implementing this effectively in their community.

CDC start times for school

 

Here are 16 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body, as reviewed by Dr. George Krucik, MD, MBA:

  • Inadequate sleep raises your risk of accidental injury and death from all causes.
  • Without plenty of rest, your brain is unable to rest and renew, leaving you ill-prepared to face the day.
  • It’s normal to yawn, but if you’re yawning excessively, maybe you aren’t getting enough sleep.
  • When you’re sleep deprived, it’s hard to concentrate. Your creativity and problem-solving skills deteriorate.
  • Your memory for recent happenings may suffer, and even long-term memories may be difficult to access.
  • Sleep deprivation can make you moody, emotional, and quick to anger.
  • If you go long enough without sleep, you may begin to have hallucinations.
  • The long-term effects of sleep deprivation include anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide.
  • If you are seriously sleep deprived, you might fall asleep for short periods without even knowing it. That can be very dangerous if you’re behind the wheel of a car.
  • Lack of sleep can make you groggy and affect your balance and coordination, making you more prone to injury due to accident.
  • Your immune system isn’t working at full capacity, so you’re more likely to become ill when exposed to bacteria and viruses.
  • Lack of sleep weakens your defenses against viruses like the common cold and influenza.
  • Lack of sleep can actually increase your appetite, and your brain may not get the message that you’ve had enough to eat.
  • Lack of sleep affects the amount of insulin released after you eat, increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • If you have hypertension, a single night without adequate sleep can elevate your blood pressure for a whole day.
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to chronic cardiovascular problems like hypertension and heart disease.

References:

Lewis, Lisa. Why school should start later in the day. LA Times. 2016, Sept. 18. Web. 2017, April 3. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-lewis-school-too-early-20160918-snap-story.html

Let Them Sleep: The AAP Recommends Delaying Start Times of Middle and High Schools to Combat Teen Sleep Deprivation. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2014, August 24. Web. 2017, April 4. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Let-Them-Sleep-AAP-Recommends-Delaying-Start-Times-of-Middle-and-High-Schools-to-Combat-Teen-Sleep-Deprivation.aspx

National Sleep Foundation. Sleep News: Later School Start Times. web. 2017, April 3. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/backgrounder-later-school-start-times

Pietrangelo, Ann and Krucik, George. The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body. Healthline. 2014, August 19. Web. 2017, April 4. http://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body

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