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Taking care of business

Should Middle and High School Start Later?

Jan 22 2016

Looking for a relatively simple and low-cost way to help teens do better in school? Have school start later in the morning — no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

That's because teens in America are chronically sleep-deprived, with two-thirds sleeping less than the 8 to 10 hours per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Researchers say that teen body clocks, which shift during puberty, make it tough for them to fall asleep earlier than 11 p.m. Yet, most schools start classes around 8 a.m. — or earlier. As a result, many kids aren't able to make up the sleep they need before they have to get up for school.

But when school districts push back their start times to 8:30 or later, students pick up extra sleep in the morning — and their school performance improves. They have higher test scores and grades, are less tired during class, and participate more, according to a recent study by University of Minnesota researchers

The study of 9,000 high school students in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming also found that students' behavior and overall health improved, with fewer discipline problems, lower absenteeism and tardiness, and fewer incidences of depression, smoking, drinking and substance abuse. Even the number of car crashes involving teen drivers was reduced.

The CDC, which sponsored the Minnesota study, is calling for school administrators to consider later start times. It says that 5 out of 6 U.S. middle and high schools start before 8:30 a.m., with the national average being 8:03 a.m. 

There is also wide variation across the country in school start times. Schools in Louisiana average 7:40 a.m., while Alaskan schools have the latest: 8:33 a.m. No schools in Hawaii, Mississippi or Wyoming start as late as 8:30 a.m., the CDC reports.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 called for schools to push back starting times, citing the significant public health danger represented by adolescent sleep deprivation. At least 80 U.S. districts have now done so, report researchers at the Yale School of Nursing, which reviewed six peer-reviewed studies that found delaying school start times had a positive effect on adolescent sleep, health (including obesity and diabetes) and academic outcomes. 

So why don't all school districts make this shift?

Challenges include transportation issues (having to shift bus schedules) and concerns about the impact on after-school activities if teens have to stay in school longer. Some parents worry that students will stay up later to keep up with homework — but researchers say that in schools that have successfully shifted to later start time, this hasn't occurred. Some parents also worry that older children won't be home in time to care for younger siblings, who return from school earlier. 

Terra Ziporyn Snider, a mother of three who co-founded the nonprofit group Start School Later, tells The Atlantic that these challenges can be overcome with effort and creative thinking. She notes, "We have to convince school systems this has to happen for the health of the kids." 


Lorna Collier is a Chicago-area writer whose articles on business and technology have appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Intuit Small Business Blog, Workforce Management, Crain’s Chicago Business, CNN, US News, the Chicago Tribune, and others. Follow her @lornacollier.

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