Schools nationwide are considering delaying school start times to better match the needs of teenagers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), earlier this year released a statement that adolescents who do not get enough sleep can suffer from physical and mental health problems, an increase in automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance. Unfortunately, teens' natural sleep cycle makes it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m. and then attend a 7:30 a.m. — or earlier — first class the next day.
The AAP recommends that middle and high schools delay the start of class time to 8:30 a.m. or later. This would bring school times in alignment with the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, for whom sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.
"Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today," said pediatrician Judith Owens, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, "School Start Times for Adolescents," published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.
"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," Dr. Owens said. "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."
In Guilford, Connecticut, several school districts are considering giving an extra hour of sleep to its older students, believing that the change will reap safety, physical, and academic benefits, writes Kate Ramunni of the New Haven Register. Although changing schedules is always a headache for school districts, it can be done. The Wilton School District was one of the first to do it in 2003; at that time, teachers were against the shift, but parents supported the change.
"It can be costly in terms of rearranging bus schedules, and a lot of students and parents are concerned with sports programs because changing times can affect their ability to participate in sports," said Rachel Gary, director of the Greater Hartford chapter of Start School Later. "There are always obstacles, but if there are things we can do to make lives healthier and safer, we owe it to them to address that. I feel like there has to be a way to come to a middle ground, and that has been done in a lot of different ways."
In Maryland's Anne Arundel County, a survey has shown that most people think that changing school starting times to a later hour is best for students. Annapolis Patchâs Deb Belt writes that four options were presented on how to make this change happen, all of which would result in high school students starting their first class at least 30 minutes later than the existing 7:17 a.m. bell.
New Jersey legislators have endorsed a bill to study the advantages of later start times for middle and high school students as well. The New Jersey Association of School Administrators supports the change, but believe it should be decided by local districts and not by a statewide mandate, according to Phil Dunne of the Courier-Post .
Teens who sleep later are less prone to have car accidents, researchers have found. An excellent example of this can be found by comparing two adjacent counties in Virginia, says Nicholas Bakalar writing for The New York Times. These two counties are almost identical when it comes to ethnicity, percentage of congested roads, and socioeconomic characteristics. One difference, however, is that in Henrico County, high school begins at 8:45 a.m., and in Chesterfield County, school begins at 7:20 a.m. In 2009-2010, the rate of accidents involving 16- to 18-year-old drivers was 48.8 per thousand in Chesterfield. In Henrico County, the rate was 37.9. In 2010-2011, in Chesterfield the rate was 51.9 per thousand and in Henrico 44.2. However, for adults during that same time, accidents fluctuated between 13 and 14 per thousand in both Chesterfield and Henrico Counties.
The November issue of The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine included the Henrico/Chesterfirld experiment, but gathered no information on other risky behaviors or other factors that could have affected the results. Dr. Robert Verona, associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School understands that the study does not specifically prove causal effect, but he does say:
"There is a growing literature that shows that early start times are a problem, and school systems should take a look at the data and seriously consider whether they should delay them."