Letting teens sleep later is good for their health, grades and attitude(!). So why do schools start so early?

By Leslie Pepper
Photo by Stocksy

Like many towns across this nation of sleep-deprived teens, my suburb in Long Island, NY, is exploring the possibility of pushing back our high school start time; right now, the first bell rings at 7:30 a.m. And not too long ago, I joined a local Facebook group called Start High School Later.

Behind the pro-snooze-button movement: the growing idea that chronic sleep loss in teens is nothing short of a public health issue. Some studies have found that when high schools shift to later start times, attendance rates increase, students get better grades and get in trouble less, and college admission test scores improve. The data are so convincing that several health organizations—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and American Psychological Association—have issued statements urging districts to switch to later start times.

So why don’t schools allow students to sleep later?

Parents (or at least some of us), for starters. One University of  Michigan study found that almost half of those surveyed were against delaying start times. Many adults were under the impression that middle and high schoolers can function just fine on seven hours or less of sleep, even though the science suggests otherwise. In my district, some argue that they survived getting up early, so why can’t their kids? There are comments in the Facebook group about taking a stricter approach and getting teens to bed early. But what parents might not realize is that later start times aren’t about coddling high schoolers; they’re about accepting biological reality. “Teens don’t have a choice about when they feel sleepy and when they wake up,” says Kyla L. Wahlstrom, a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota who has been studying the effects of school start times on teens for more than 20 years. “The adolescent brain works differently than younger kids’ and adults’. ”

That’s not to say there aren’t real-life obstacles to a time switch. Last year in California, statewide legislation in favor of an 8:30 start was ultimately vetoed. The then governor noted that a “one-size-fits-all” approach was unlikely to fly with school boards and suggested that start times are best handled locally. 

To wit: Where I live, four elementary school districts feed into a single middle/high school district. To keep costs down, we share buses and stagger pickup and drop-off times based on age. Arranging for more buses could add $800,000 to the budget. Teachers are another consideration—after all, they’re people too, with their own family schedules to coordinate. Most unions detail hours in their contracts, so any districts contemplating later start times have to wait until renegotiation to implement them.

Wake-up call 

Remember once upon a time when you had a baby with a flagrant disregard for how early was too early to wake up? Those flashbacks can make it all the more unbelievable when you now shake your teen in an effort to get him up and out of bed. 

I saw this with my own sons. When they were little, both had already clocked at least a few episodes of SpongeBob by the time I came downstairs at 7:30 a.m. But somewhere around when they each turned 11 or 12, my early birds transformed into night owls, and it took all the strength I had to prod them out of bed. 

Sleep experts say that as kids move into puberty, they experience a sleep phase shift that makes it harder for their brains to drift off much before 11 p.m. The next day, their brains stay in sleep mode until 8 a.m. This means teens aren’t just being lazybones, stubbornly trying to make their parents’ lives miserable. Two out of every three high school students get less than eight hours of sleep a night, according to the CDC. Other research suggests that only 10% of teens get the sleep they need (which could be up to 10 hours). The lack of rest leads to more than just groggy, grouchy kids. CDC data indicate that sleepy teens are more depressed, more apt to engage in risky behaviors, and more likely to be bullies and join in fights. Teens who drive alone while drowsy—say, on the way to school—are more likely to be involved in a car crash, one study found.

And they can suffer in school too, having trouble paying attention in class and performing worse overall. The timing of teens’ rapid eye movement (REM) sleep could also be partly to blame. REM sleep is associated with mood regulation and learning functions, and there’s usually a cycle around 6 a.m.—just when the alarm clock buzzes (or mom shakes!). “When a teen is getting up so early for school, that can rob the brain of its final, essential period of REM sleep,” Wahlstrom says. 

ICYMI (as the kids might say), their tech habits aren’t exactly helping either. Many teens, my own included, watch Netflix or YouTube videos at the end of the night to wind down. But this routine has the opposite effect, because their devices emit blue light that suppresses the body’s melatonin, the sleep/wake hormone. Even if you could take technol-ogy out of the equation (um, good luck), there’s still the problem of teens not being able to naturally fall asleep early enough.

Saved from the bell

Health experts aren’t suggesting a drastic time shift so much as a just-right one. “Eight thirty becomes the sweet spot,” Wahlstrom says. “They can go to bed at eleven, get the eight or nine hours of sleep they need, and still make it to school,” she says. (In a CDC survey, almost 40,000 middle and high schools report an average start time of 8:03 a.m.)

When Seattle high schools recently delayed the first bell, kids got extra sleep, improved their grades, were tardy less often and had fewer absences. 

Nevertheless, parents still have reservations. Some worry about after-school activities getting pushed further into the night. “My daughter has kickline, then dance, and she doesn’t get home until after seven as it is,” wrote one mom online. Others wonder if sports will suffer, reasoning that a later school day will mean less time for practice and games. That wasn’t the case when one high school in Wilton, CT, let kids show up later: Teachers and parents reported that kids had better attitudes and were more pleasant all around. More kids participated in sports—and the school finished the year with one of its best athletic seasons overall. 

In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way (to find it, just look under the duvet, next to the drooling teen who’s sleeping like he never did as a baby). The question shouldn’t be whether we change start times, but how we do it. “We don’t debate whether to leave mold or asbestos in our schools,” says Phyllis Payne, a director at the nonprofit group Start School Later

I asked our local high school superintendent how, as a parent, I could help sway the district to move our high schools’ start times back. He suggested I attend the next Board of Education meeting armed with the research. Wish me luck.