Can Recess Before Lunch and Later School Start Times Improve Student Performance?
Change the time school starts from 7.25am to 8.30am; SAT scores rise significantly.
Move recess to before lunch; not only is less food wasted (i.e., tossed into garbage cans by kids scurrying out to play in the time allotted), but students’ academic performance improves, a bit.
Small and seemingly commonsensical innovations that, according to some school administrators, have made a difference for students. As Tara Parker-Pope in the January 25th Well blog on the New York Times, writes, school districts in Montana, Arizona, and New Jersey have shifted to “recess before lunch,” with promising results. Besides less food wasted, children are “less likely to become hungry or feel sick later in the day” and “to the surprise of school officials, moving recess before lunch ended up adding about 15 minutes of classroom instruction.”
In the January 23rd Guardian, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman note that children today sleep an hour less than they did 30 years ago, with 60% of high school students reporting “extreme daytime sleepiness.” Studies vary but “anywhere from a fifth to a third are falling asleep in class at least once a week.” No surprise to hear that secondary students sleep only a bit more than 6.5 hours a night. Bronson and Merryman cite the example of Edina, an “affluent suburb of Minneapolis,” where changing the start time for high school to 8.30am resulted in the “best and brightest” students’ SAT scores going up by 56 points in math and a “whopping 156 points” on the verbal test.
So why don’t all school districts at least consider such changes?
The simple reality of logistics, for one thing. Parker-Pope notes that
Children often have to return to hallways and classrooms after recess for bathroom breaks and hand washing and to pick up lunch bags. The North Ranch Elementary School [in Scottsdale, Arizona] regularly fields calls from schools in colder climates with questions on how to deal with coats, hats, galoshes and mittens. “In Arizona, we don’t have to deal with that,” said Dr. [Sarah] Hartley, the principal.
What might work in suburban (and, in particular, affluent) school districts, may well (as child experts point out) not in urban ones. Lower-income children may come to school without breakfast; having to wait even long during recess to eat lunch may not be possible, or advised. And a later start to the school day can wreak havoc on morning routines for households with parents who need to get to their jobs. As much as administrators might welcome the increases in test scores and increased time for academic instruction, fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s elementary schools schedule recess before lunch, according to The Journal of Childhood Nutrition & Management. I’m sure any school official would have her or his interest piqued by those SAT scores but—considering that Edina is, as noted, an “affluent suburb,” it’s certainly possible that other factors (parental involvement, more access to tutors) might have played a role.
As a parent myself, I can speak to the beneficial effects of a later start time for school. My son’s former public middle school started at 7.45am; he now attends a public center for children on the autism spectrum, with a start time of 8.45am. Try as he might, Charlie just could not make 6.45am wake-up times (to catch a 7.15am bus) part of his routine, and many a morning started with frantic running around, not to mention tears. Now he, and we, have plenty of time to get ready in a (more or less) calm and collected fashion.
And regarding “recess before lunch.” Charlie doesn’t have recess anymore but he does have Adapted Physical Education form 9 – 9.30am. He’s able to have a snack afterwards which sometimes turns into a mini-lunch (brunch, that is). He’s been generally focused and in good spirits for the rest of the day with a break at what is actually lunchtime. He doesn’t want to eat any breakfast at home, and I’m thinking that those 30 minutes of physical activity whet his appetite so he eats, feels satisfied, is ready for learning.
Of course, administrators at Charlie’s current school are able to make the necessary accommodations for students with many needs like him. Public schools with far larger populations, and much bigger groups of children to move in and out of cafeterias and playgrounds, have many more logistical problems to content with, not to mention parents who say they’re fine with an 8.30am start time, but please be sure to make arrangements for kids who get dropped off early by working moms and dads.
And so apparently commonsensical solutions start seeming a lot more complicated and, unfortunately, not so feasible.
Photo of children on a playground by DC DPR.
Kristina Chew, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Classics at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. Since 2005, she has been blogging about autism, disabilities, and education, previously at Autism Vox and now at We Go With Him, a daily journal about life with her 12 1/2 year old son Charlie.