As any parent of a teen knows, our kids’ sleep patterns don’t tend to align with ours. They generally prefer to stay up late and then sleep in, which in theory would be fine if we could allow them that luxury, but life doesn’t usually permit this.
High schools often start the earliest of all grade levels, forcing painful pre-dawn awakenings on our young night owls and depriving them of desperately needed sleep. I know when I was a teen, I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time for a 7:10 start. I have vivid memories of nodding off in my AP math class despite desperately wanting to remain alert so I could absorb the material.
Schools should start at a later time to let teens sleep longer hours
The problem with super early school start times for teenagers is that teenagers are literally programmed to adjust their preferred sleep times—their circadian rhythms—to later hours. In the years after puberty hits, shifting hormones cause kids to be more awake and alert during the dark hours after sunset, and to then sleep in the next day. Their bodies don’t want to go to sleep early, and sunlight the next morning doesn’t have the same wake-up effect on their brains as it does for little kids and adults.
And yet, early school start times force teens to wake up incredibly early, often much earlier even than their parents have to wake for their own workday. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Sleep Foundation have recommended for years that high schools have later start times.
In other words, schools are working against our kids’ biological needs, and possibly preventing them from doing their best.
Sleep is important for physical and mental health at all age levels, but for developing minds and bodies, it is critical. Teens who don’t get adequate sleep have been shown to have increased risk of obesity, depression, and hypertension. And chronic sleep deprivation negatively impacts learning and memory consolidation.
Thankfully, some schools are starting to toy with the idea of later start times, and so far, results have appeared positive. But there hadn’t yet been a scientific study done to get measurements of tangible data.
Until, that is, researchers at the University of Washington conducted a study tracking data from high school sophomores from two different high schools over the course of two different spring semesters (2016 and 2017)—one with an early start time, and one with a later start time. Students from the 2017 class got nearly an extra hour to sleep in, with a start time of 8:45, as opposed to a 7:50 start time for the 2016 class.
Researchers were able to identify various positive outcomes of the later start time. With an average of over a half an hour of additional sleep for students, the 2017 students with the later start time got an extra 3.5 hours’ sleep per week compared with their 2016 peers with the earlier start time. They also found that students’ grades improved by 5%, and attendance improved as well.
Another positive outcome of the study was a decrease in something called social jet lag. Social jet lag happens when, after waking up very early all week, a teen sleeps in on the weekend to try to make up for lost time. This makes for agonizing, sleepy wakeups on Monday and Tuesday while the student’s body attempts to adjust to the earlier wake up time. It literally feels like shifting time zones twice per week.
But with the later school start time, the study showed a decrease in the variation between week sleep times and weekend sleep times, and therefore a decrease in social jet lag.
The study also showed an improvement in punctuality and attendance, but, interestingly, it only revealed an improvement in the socioeconomically disadvantaged group. Researchers propose that later school start times may have the potential to “decrease the learning gap between low and high socioeconomic groups.” School districts would do well to factor this in when considering equity and fair opportunity within their student population.
What seems to become more and more clear as more high schools test out later start times is that teens benefit when we work with their biological clocks rather than fighting against them. Here’s hoping more schools will follow suit.