Pediatricians: Secondary Schools Need Later Start Times

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a statement suggesting that middle and high schools should begin around 8:30 a.m. or later as a countermeasure to the insufficient amount of sleep that our country’s teens receive.

Multiple factors, “including biological changes in sleep associated with puberty, lifestyle choices, and academic demands,” negatively impact teens’ ability to get enough sleep, and pushing back school start times is key to helping them achieve optimal levels of sleep – 8½ – 9½ hours a night, says the American Academy of Pediatrics statement, released Monday and published online in Pediatrics.

A 2006 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation states that only 1 in 5 teens sleep for at least 9 hours on school nights, with 45% sleeping less than 8 hours.

Not getting enough sleep can result in an increased risk of health problems such as obesity, stroke and diabetes due to lowered physical activity.

Sleeplessness can also lead to anxiety and depression, which could in turn lead to higher chances of participating in risk-taking behaviors.  Higher rates of car accidents are seen when less sleep is involved.

All of this leads to decreased academic performance and less motivation to attend school due to deficiencies in memory, attention, organization and time management.

While napping, coffee consumption and sleeping in on weekends will combat the effects of sleeplessness temporarily, they are not a reliable source of gaining optimum alertness for extended periods of time.

The US Department of Education reports that 43% of the 18,000 high schools within the nation start prior to 8 .am.  Those students who rely on the bus to attend classes may be picked up as early as 5:45 a.m.  Meanwhile, WebMD reports that around puberty, the sleep cycle changes making it harder to fall asleep before 11pm.

Having a later start time for school is only the start to finding an end to the issue.  Other responsibilities in teenager’s lives add to the problem, including homework, after-school jobs, sports, and computer use.  The light from a screen is enough to interrupt the sleep cycle, reports Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and lead author of the AAP statement.

According to Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement at the University of Minnesota, when schools have a later start time, there are “benefits across the board.”

“We’ve found statistically significant evidence that attendance is improved, tardiness is decreased and academic performance on core subjects, English, math, social studies and science, is improved. And now we have evidence that on national standardized tests such as the ACT, there’s improvement there, too,” Wahlstrom says.

Many schools are hesitant to institute such a policy, citing such reasons as less time for extracurricular activities, including sports, reduced opportunities for after-school employment, as well as conflicts with bus schedules.