School Start Times

What time should high school start on average? This is a question that has come up quite a bit in the past few years. Both sides have been argued, but only on side seems truly beneficial according to medical professionals.

Many of those that advocate for later start times do so in an attempt to stop, or at least lessen, sleep deprivation among adolescents, which is not only the number one health problem in America, but causes many other health problems, both physically and mentally. One reason why high schools should begin later is that many students are not fully awake during their early morning classes, which affects how much they can focus on what is being taught. This lack of alertness can cause students to forget the information that they had just learned. Studies show that at the time of “pubertal onset” adolescents undergo a “phase shift”. This means that their natural sleep onset and wake up times shift to a later time. This is believed to be caused by the adolescent brains delayed timing of the release of nocturnal melatonin, which causes difficulty falling asleep at earlier bedtimes.

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Another reason to delay start times for high schools is that sleep deprivation is not one single health problem, according to studies it can cause many other health problems. Some of these health problems are mental, while some are physical. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can decrease “quality of life” among teenagers, and that high school seniors report getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night even though the recommended time is 8.5-9 hours. (American Academy of Pediatrics) Research has shown that insufficient sleep has taken a toll on academic performance. In a poll taken by the National Sleep Foundation, 28% of students reported falling asleep in school at least once a week, while more than one in five reported falling asleep while working on homework with a similar frequency.

Many studies have shown that there is a connection between decreased sleep duration and lower academic achievement as well as a decreased readiness to learn, and an increased dropout rate. Links between sleep deprivation and physical ailments have been proven in studies. One of the medical issues associated with chronic sleep deprivation is metabolic dysfunction, which causes type 2 diabetes. Also, a higher risk of obesity has been proven to be linked to chronic sleep deprivation in studies done by The American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations. There is also a higher amount of caffeine consumption as a result of this to try and counteract the possibility of drowsy driving and higher risk of car accidents, which increases the risk of a caffeine toxicity/overdose. Sleep deprivation is also responsible for changes in mental health and behavior.

One such mental change this can cause is an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. It has also been linked to poor impulse control and self-regulation, as well as increased risk taking. Another behavior it inhibits is the interpretation of social and emotional cues in one’s self as well as others. Also, there is decreased motivation and an increased vulnerability to stress. Although many causes are linked to sleep deprivation, one of the most common and easily changeable is school start times.

School districts that have altered start times have reported students getting anaverage of 1 more hour of sleep a night, increasing the percent of students who reported getting 8 or more hours of sleep a night from 37% to 50%. ( Danner F, Phillips B. Adolescent sleep, school start times, and teen motor vehicle crashes. J Clin Sleep Med. 2008;4(6):533–535) These students have also reported that they are less sleepy during the day, and their grades and attendance improved.

In a report by the Brookings Institute economists stated that changing high school start times would have a substantial benefit-to-cost ratio (9:1). The report stated that schools are paid by attendance, and therefore if they delayed the start times, and increased the attendance rate, they could get more funding. Others might say that students will just stay up later, negating the extra time to sleep in the morning, but studies have shown that students actually have gone to bed earlier than they did with the old start times, and have gotten 12-30 minutes more sleep. They might also say that if school started later, after school activities would run later into the night, and while this is entirely true, students would still have more energy to work harder and pay more attention than previously during these classes. This would also allow the students with a 0 period class, such as pre-school workouts for football, to get more sleep before they need to wake up and work out, even though they have to get up before the rest of the student population. Another thing that delaying school start times would do is to allow teachers to have more time to prepare for class in the morning, since they have to be at school before the students normally.

What real drawback is there to keeping school start times as they are? Students and faculty, as well as the school itself benefit from delaying start times. Students are happier, more prepared to learn, better rested, they have better general quality of life, and are less likely to be absent or drop out, while teachers have more time to prepare before school as well as a little more time to sleep. The school itself also benefits because it is paid by attendance rate, and the more students that are at school, on time, the more funding the school receives for the students and supplies.