You’d be hard-pressed to find a teenager who’s bright and perky in the morning, eager to hop out of bed and head to school. It’s all because of biology: Teenagers undergo a shift in their body’s natural rhythms, which makes them require more sleep.
That’s why, over the last few years, parents around the country have been fighting to make mornings just a little bit easier for their teens. On local, statewide and national levels, groups have advocated for middle and high schools to push back their start times from 7 or 7:30 a.m. — about average for most schools — to 8 or 8:30 a.m., or even later.
And if you think it’s just overprotective parents making a fuss about nothing, well, don’t be so sure.
Just this week, the CDC released a study concluding adolescents should start school later. The study came exactly a year after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement recommending teens start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m., citing healthy sleep as crucial for their health and development, and noting that the less sleep teenagers get, the more at risk they are for such diseases as obesity and depression. Some studies show that students with earlier start times are more at risk of motor vehicle accidents, while others say that children with sleep disorders are more likely to become bullies.
Coupled with the fact that cell phones and laptops have made it harder than ever for teens to fall asleep at a normal hour, why is it such a battle to get the school districts to take the matter seriously?
Due to pressure from parents, sports programs and many other community members, districts are hesitant to shake up the system. As such, they cite a few go-to excuses as to why they couldn’t possibly push back the start times. Here are a few of the big ones, and why the reasoning behind them is faulty.
Excuse #1: “Early School Start Times Conflict with Sports Schedules”
One of the biggest arguments districts make is that if they push back their start time, there will be conflicting athletic schedules with other schools whose start times haven’t changed.
But according to Maribel Ibrahim, co-founder of Start School Later, Inc., it’s not nearly as much of a problem as people think. She cited two districts — Loudoun County, V.A. and Wilton, C.T. — that have later start times than their neighboring, competing communities, yet still see no problem scheduling practices and continue producing star athletes and winning state championships.
What’s more, studies show that sleep-deprived student athletes are also at a significantly higher risk of injury.
“With earlier start times, what you’re going to have is students that are well-rested, students that are going to have less sports injuries,” Ibrahim says. “Communities adjust, and that’s what always ends up happening.”
Excuse #2: "Parents Are Worried About Their Younger Children”
In most school districts, elementary schools normally start later than all others. But since younger students don’t require as much sleep as teenagers, many advocates propose a schedule swap, where high school times would be pushed forward and elementary schools would be pushed back.
From there comes the outcry, as many argue that earlier start times would mean that younger kids return home earlier, without older siblings to watch over them.
“That’s a sort of spurious argument, because if you have one child or two children or three children, somebody at one stage of life is going to require childcare,” says Ibrahim. “To say that starting school later is going to contribute to a child care problem is not really accurate.”
And while some also worry that if elementary schools start earlier, younger kids will be waiting at the bus stop in the dark, early morning. But that only means that parents or chaperones will have to get up a bit earlier to guide them there.
Excuse #3: “Teenagers Will Arrive Home Too Late”
Move ahead one thing and everything else shifts forward, including after school activities and part-time jobs. This, proponents say, results in teenagers coming home far later than usual. And that may be the case, but the physical and mental gains of additional sleep far outweigh any scheduling issues.
“The thing that’s really hard to picture is how much better these students are going to feel with as little as 20 minutes more rest in the morning,” says Ibrahim. “When they get 20 minutes more sleep, they’re going to be able to think critically, they’re going to perform better and they’re going to work more efficiently.”
And while some critics might contend that these later start times will allow students to stay up later and get even less sleep than they did before, that’s not the case.
In fact, a study from the University of Minnesota found that schools that begin as little as a half hour later result in teens getting a full hour of extra sleep each night. And that much extra sleep has myriad benefits: for example, a study conducted by economists from the University of California and U.S. Air Force Academy and listed in “The Impact of School Start Times on Adolescent Health and Academic Performance” found that a later start time of 50 minutes “has the equivalent benefit as raising teacher quality by roughly one standard deviation.” In other words, that extra sleep gained makes your child more likely to absorb and retain information.
Ibrahim also has words for these proponents, stating that the fact kids don’t have to wake up early makes all the difference.
“And that’s what isn’t factored in,” she says, “that these students are now operating with a better sense of judgment and improved health. They’re going to be more alive.”