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Early School Start Times Jeopardize Kids’ Well-Being and Academic Performance
Those yellow school buses are rolling again, and in many cases that translates to many parents having to get their older children out of bed, sometimes long before the sun has had a chance to rise. The reason: School’s early start times, coupled with the fact that most teens can’t fall asleep easily until around 11 p.m. This then means that to get their required minimum of 8.5 to 9.5 hours of zzz, they need to sleep until at least 7 hours. :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.” As a result, teenagers can’t help but stay up late at night, so early morning awakenings are difficult.
Specifically, the “biological wake-up time” for 10-year-olds is around 6:30 a.m., so their school day should start between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. However, at 16, children don’t naturally wake up until around 8:00 a.m., so high schools shouldn’t have class until 10:00 a.m. or even 10:30 a.m. Also, since 18-year-olds usually don’t move until 9:00 a.m., they shouldn’t start until 11:00 a.m. or 11:30 a.m.
Oh, if only…
Take for example the prestigious Lower Merion School District of Pennsylvania. While its elementary schools hit the mark by having young people arrive at 9 a.m., its middle school students start at 8:30 a.m. every morning, while high school students are already in the first period at 7:30 a.m.!
And since the sun doesn’t rise here in September until 6:28 a.m., heaps of sleeping children are standing at their bus stops in the dark.
Meanwhile, Lower Merion is quite typical. When the CDC examined nearly 40,000 public middle and high schools or schools combined, it found that:
The average departure time was 8:03
42 states reported that 75% to 100% of their public schools start 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.
Worried, the CDC is now, for the first time ever, taking a stand and advocating for later start times. This is in addition to the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics last year that middle and high schools delay their start times until 8:30 a.m. or later. “This,” explains the Academy, “will align school schedules with the biological sleep patterns of adolescents whose sleep-wake cycles begin to change up to two hours later at the onset of puberty.”
Both organizations say lack of sleep carries many risks, including:
Higher obesity rates
Decreased quality of life
And, as if that weren’t enough, adds William Perkins-Taft, the academic dean of Oakwood High School, “We know that if you miss an extra hour of sleep as a teenager, it’s like drinking a drink. And if you have a campus full of kids doing that – well, that’s clearly not the most conducive environment for learning.”
To be sure, none of this is hot news; it’s actually been on the back burner for a while. Now, however, more influential groups are making their voices heard, and it’s not too soon, as research proves that an under-closed eye also lowers academic performance.
For example, studies at the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Nevada, Reno have determined that by forcing students to get up too early in their circadian cycle, schools thus cause “severe and chronic sleep loss”. The result: “Poor communication, decreased concentration and cognitive performance, involuntary sleep, decreased motor performance, increased risk taking and mood swings, especially depression.”
Nevertheless, despite being in the company of yawning, inattentive students every day, many educators like things the way they are. For example, when about 6,000 teachers in Montgomery County, Maryland were polled, 63% opposed changing the bell hours. Moreover, more than 50% of them were against starting even 20 minutes later.
They have their reasons, like many others, such as:
Bring older children home before their younger siblings arrive.
Savings achieved by staggering departure times at all three levels, thus reusing the same buses.
The so-called “logistical nightmare” of changing bell and bus schedules.
Extracurricular activities that would extend past sunset if started later
After-school jobs that are, for some, unavoidable.
So, while waiting…
After school, offer a healthy, high-protein snack, then start homework soon after, always starting with the most difficult subjects.
When homework is done, pack the school bag and get it ready to avoid the extra morning stress of rushing to find books and papers.
Make sleep a priority, encouraging consistent sleep and wake times, not just on school days, but also on weekends.
Before return time, encourage reading or a hot shower/bath instead of screen time on Facebook, Instagram, messaging, games, etc.
Keep all technological devices, including smartphones, out of the bedroom; their bright light most likely lowers melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Additionally, a recent study from the University of Glasgow found that “although overall social media use has an impact on sleep quality, those who log on at night seem to be particularly affected.”
Delay waking up for as long as possible, have a healthy but quick breakfast close at hand, and the pre-packaged book bag waiting at the door, along with lunch or lunch money.
And finally, urge your district to modify its schedule to take into account the health and well-being of the students in its care.
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