Those yellow school buses are rolling again, and, in many cases, that translates into many parents having to drag their older kids out of bed—sometimes long before the sun has had a chance to rise. The reason: early school start times, coupled with the fact that most teens can’t readily fall asleep until around 11 p.m. That then means that to get their minimum required 8.5 to 9.5 hours of zzz’s, they need to sleep in until at least 7:30 in the morning.
As the National Sleep Foundation explains, “Our internal circadian biological clocks… regulate the timing of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.” Accordingly, teens can’t help staying up late at night, so early wake-up calls are tough.
Specifically, “the biological wake time” for 10-year-olds is about 6:30, so their school day should start between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. However, by 16, kids don’t naturally awaken until around 8:00, so high schools shouldn’t hold classes until 10:00 or even 10:30 a.m. Moreover, since 18-year-olds generally don’t stir until around 9 o’clock, they shouldn’t begin until 11 or 11:30 in the morning.
Oh, if only…
Take Pennsylvania’s prestigious Lower Merion School District, for example. While its elementary schools get it right by having youngsters arrive at 9, its middle schoolers get going at 8:30 every morning, while the high schoolers are already in first period at 7:30 a.m.!
And, since the sun doesn’t rise around here in September until 6:28 a.m., loads of sleepy kids are standing at their bus stops in the dark.
Meanwhile, Lower Merion is fairly typical. When the CDC looked at nearly 40,000 public middle and high schools or combined schools, it found that:
• The average start time was 8:03 a.m.
• 42 states reported that 75% to 100% of their public schools started before 8:30 a.m.
• Louisiana had the earliest start time: 7:40 a.m.
• Alabama had the latest start time: 8:33 a.m.
Concerned, the CDC is now, for the first time ever, taking a stand and advocating for later start times. This comes on top of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation last year that middle and high schools delay their start times until 8:30 or later. “Doing so,” says the Academy, “will align school schedules to the biological sleep patterns of adolescents whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”
Both organizations say that not enough sleep comes with many risks, including:
• Higher obesity rates
• Car crashes
• Lower quality of life
And, as if that’s not enough, adds William Perkins-Taft, the academic dean at Oakwood Secondary School, “We know if you miss an extra hour of sleep as a teenager, it’s like drinking a shot of alcohol. And if you have a campus filled with kids who are doing that—well, it’s clearly not the most conducive environment for learning.”
To be sure, none of this is hot-off-the-presses news; it’s actually been on the back burners for a while. Now, though, more influential groups are making their voices heard and none too soon, since research is proving that not enough shut eye also diminishes academic performance.
For instance, studies at the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Nevada, Reno, determined that forcing students to get up too early in their circadian cycle, schools are, thereby, causing “severe and chronic sleep loss.” The result: “Poor communication, decreased concentration and cognitive performance, unintended sleeps, decreased motor performance, increased risk-taking, and changes in mood patterns, specifically depression.”
Nevertheless, and although in the company of yawning, inattentive students every day, many educators like things just the way they are. For instance, when about 6,000 Montgomery County, Maryland teachers were surveyed, 63% opposed changing bell times. Moreover, more than 50% of them were against starting even just 20 minutes later.
They have their reasons, as do many others, such as:
1. Getting older kids home before their younger siblings arrive.
2. Savings derived from staggering start times at the three levels, thus reusing the same buses.
3. The so-called “logistical nightmare” of changing bell and bus schedules.
4. After-school activities that would extend past sunset if started later
5. After-school jobs that are, for some, are a must.
So, in the meantime…
1. After school, provide a healthy, protein-rich snack and then get homework started soon thereafter and always with the hardest subjects first.
2. Once homework is all completed, get the school bag packed up and ready to go to avoid added morning stress rushing to find books and papers.
3. Make sleep a priority, encouraging consistent sleep and wake up times, not just on school days but weekends, too.
4. Before turn-in time, encourage reading or a warm shower/bath instead of screen time Facebooking, Instagramming, messaging, gaming, whatever.
5. Keep all tech devices, including smartphones, out of the bedroom; their bright light quite possibly lowers the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Plus, a recent University of Glasgow study found that, “While overall social media use impacts on sleep quality, those who log on at night appear to be particularly affected.”
6. Delay wake time as long as possible, have a healthy but quick breakfast at the ready and the pre-packed book bag waiting at the door, complete with lunch or lunch money.
And finally, urge your district to modify its schedule to accommodate the health and welfare of the students in its keeping.