The debate about whether high schools start too early has waged on for years now, and students may have finally gained their most important allies yet: pediatricians. The doctors who work closely with teenagers are now calling for an official change in educational policy. They’re asking that middle and high schools delay their first class until at least 8:30 a.m. each day.
Adults like to deride teenagers for staying up late and then sleeping in in the morning, but the truth is that this is the natural sleep rhythm for teenagers. Biologically speaking, most teenagers are programmed to go to bed no sooner than 11 p.m. On average, their bodies require over nine hours of sleep, but just 15% of American high school students get even eight and a half hours of sleep on a school night.
Currently, 85% of high schools in America start before 8:30 a.m. By beginning school so early, we’re helping to ensure that the vast majority of American teenagers are sleep deprived. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points out, this is ridiculous since sleep has such drastic effects on mental and physical health. Moreover, when it comes to tackling these problems, sleep deprivation is relatively preventable.
Practicing a regular sleep schedule is one of the best ways to achieve good sleep health. Due in part to social lives, on the weekends, kids stay up later and sleep in later like their bodies expect them to. Since the sudden shift in routine from having to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier limits quality sleep overall, allowing teens to keep a schedule more consistent with their weekend bedtimes during the week would be beneficial.
Even if kids did get to sleep a little sooner on weekdays, that wouldn’t necessarily make them ready for learning sooner in the morning. Doctors have found that most teenager’s brains don’t even naturally wake up from a sleep state until at least 8 a.m.
As a former high school teacher, I can anecdotally support the research of these pediatricians. My first period classes – which started at 7:40 a.m. – were always my best behaved. This was a dubious distinction, however, because they were also the least engaged students. The truth is, they were just too tired to act out… but also too tired to absorb the information I tried to teach them, as well.
Heading up the charge to push back school start times, Dr. Judith Owens said, “The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and wellbeing of our nation’s youth. By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delays as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”
Will bumping back school times actually be a worthwhile undertaking? Look no further than the 15% of high schools that already start at 8:30 a.m. or later for proof of its success. Not only do these schools record lower rates of absences and tardiness, the students who attend perform better in school and show higher levels of mastery.
If you agree with the AAP, sign this petition asking the U.S. Department of Education to call on schools to start later.