Starting School Later Improves Teen Health, Sleep, Focus, and More

It’s safe to assume that high school students would probably cherish a little extra sleep in the morning, but did you know that studies show that starting school later for teens is actually healthier for them? Sleep experts have determined a shift in sleep cycles (circadian rhythms) in recent studies. This shift begins in adolescence and makes it more difficult for most adolescents to fall asleep as early as younger children or older adults. Typical sleep cycles begin around 11 p.m. for teenagers and continue through 8 a.m.

Early school hours prevent many students and young teachers from getting the 9 hours of sleep per night that of them need. The health, safety, and equity benefits to starting middle and high school at times more in sync with the sleep needs and patterns of students are irrefutable. Sleep researchers and other health professionals have been telling us since the 1990s that these early school hours are harming our children. The research proves that both the number of hours of sleep and the timing of sleep affect our health. The symptoms of sleep deprivation are serious and can include the following:

  • Weight gain and eating disorders
  • Increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular problems, and/or diabetes
  • Decreased functionality of the immune system
  • Emotional disturbances such as depression, anxiety, and mood swings
  • Increased risk of substance abuse, behavioral problems, and suicide
  • Potential impacts on brain development

This means that an early wake-up call (5 or 6 a.m. to allow many teens to catch buses or commute to early-start schools) not only allows only 6 or 7 hours of sleep per school night at most, but it also requires students to wake up in the middle of deep sleep. According to most sleep experts, most adolescents need about 9 hours of sleep per night. Nearly 67% of modern adolescents get less than 8 hours of sleep per night, however, and 40% get less than 6 hours per night.

Contrary to these statistics, nearly 10% of U.S. high schools currently begin classes before 7:30 a.m., 40% start before 8 a.m., and only about 15% start after 8:30 a.m. Over 20% of U.S. middle schools start classes at 7:45 a.m. or earlier. This means that bus pick-ups for students start shortly after 5:30 a.m. in some districts, and teens must wake at 5 or 6 a.m. to get to school on time. Meanwhile, the school day ends in the early afternoon, sometimes even before 2 p.m. These schedules are out-of-sync with the sleep needs and patterns of middle and high school students, whose brains and bodies are still growing, and they create a huge sleep debt every week of the school year.

Hundreds of schools around the United States have already restored later start times, and many more never moved to extremely early hours in the first place. Some have seen cost savings by redesigning transportation systems more efficiently, and were able to apply these savings to any expense incurred by the rescheduling. These districts can say they looked at the science of what’s best for the students and made the change accordingly, and as a result they are seeing large and small benefits to physical and mental health, learning, attendance, graduation rates, and overall student well-being. It’s time for other schools to follow suit.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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