Should High School Start later in the Morning

“Can’t I sleep just a little longer?” These are words I heard about 5 times every morning since I have 5 children.  I’m sure they are the same words I whined to my Mother every school day at 6:00am.

There is evidence now, based on a study by  Judith A. Owens, MD, MPH, at the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., and colleagues.   The 201 students participating, in grades 9 through 12 attend a Rhode Island high school where their first class was moved from 8:00 to 8:30 for 2 months.  Each student completed the online retrospective Sleep Habits Survey before and after a change in school start time.

Researchers found that with the delay of just 30 minutes, daytime sleepiness, fatigue and depressed mood were all reduced.  Students actually went to bed earlier and slept longer with a later wake-up.  In fact, almost 80% of students reported getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night compared to the less than 7 hours before the change.  Students also reported significantly more satisfaction with sleep and improved motivation.  Class attendance improved, and visits to “the nurses office” were reduced.

Some of the teachers and staff at the Rhode Island High School who were skeptical and not convinced a later start time was a good idea, changed their minds when the results were positive, and so were the kids.

The conclusion says Owens, “A modest delay in school start time was associated with significant improvements in measures of adolescent alertness, mood, and health. The results of this study support the potential benefits of adjusting school schedules to adolescents’ sleep needs, circadian rhythm, and developmental stage.”

This is not a new concept.

In an earlier study (1998-2001)by Kyla Wahlstrom and her research team at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), two Minneapolis-area school districts decided to shift secondary school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later based on emerging medical research showing adolescents have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle.

Medical researchers found this cycle is part of the maturation of the endocrine system. From the onset of puberty until late teen years, the brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until approximately 8 a.m., nine hours later. This secretion is based on human circadian rhythms and is rather fixed. In other words, typical youth are not able to fall asleep much before 11 p.m. and their brains will remain in sleep mode until about 8 a.m., regardless of what time they go to bed.

The National Sleep Foundation in Washington, DC has been in agreement with the delayed school day for quite some time.  According to Pat Britz, Program Director, the CAREI study represents the research school officials, parents, teachers, and other interested parties use to support their advocacy efforts. It is the only long-range systematic study that shows that changing to later start times is beneficial to students and schools.

Only a very small percentage of schools are jumping on the delayed school day wagon.  There are some concerns with a later start time such as the cost and scheduling of busses, after-school sports schedules, and for working parents who drive their teens to school.  All of these concerns have been overcome in a positive way, without increased expense for the few school districts which have chosen to listen to the data and put education ahead of sports and tradition. 

Ben Franklin said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  Ben, were you talking to teenagers?