If you’ve ever had to roll a sleepy kid out of bed for school, you know the drill: Many middle schoolers and teens have a tough time waking up. It’s no fun for parents either, who have to beg, plead and prod to get their kids moving. But it’s not that our kids are being rebellious.
“Around the time of puberty, there’s a change in how their bodies regulate sleep,” says Sari Bentsianov, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics and section chief of adolescent medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “First, there’s a delay in producing melatonin, the hormone that helps promote sleep. At the same time, kids’ sleep drive builds more slowly so they don’t feel tired until later in the evening. These two biological factors cause adolescents to want to stay up later and sleep in later.”
While that may not be an issue during summer vacation, it’s definitely a big deal once school starts. That’s because the national average school start time is 8:10 am, while some high schools start as early as 7 am. “Teens generally need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night, so if they’re not able to fall asleep until midnight and they have to get up in time to get ready, eat and catch the bus to get to school on time, they’re chronically sleep-deprived,” says Bentsianov.
Because the average age kids go through puberty is between 10 and 12, sleep issues actually may start in middle school. Here’s what else you should know about later school start times:
Data from the National Sleep Foundation surveys between 2007 to 2013 found that 69 percent of high school kids got seven or fewer hours of sleep per night. “We’re not meeting kids’ sleep needs,” says Deborah Steinbaum, MD, MPH, primary care pediatrician at PediatriCare Associates in Fair Lawn, and member of the New Jersey American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Adolescent Sleep and School Start Times. “You can make sure kids have good sleep hygiene habits such as shutting off their phones an hour before bed but adolescents still can’t fall asleep because of these biological changes.”
SLEEP AFFECTS PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
It’s no secret that any of us—kids included—don’t feel or perform best when we don’t get enough sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation increases risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, says Bentsianov. Numerous studies have shown lack of sleep is related to risk-taking behaviors and poor impulse control by kids, such as drinking, smoking, risky sexual activity and substance abuse.
Other research shows chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of accidents and sports injuries. For example, one study showed that car crash rates for a county which delayed high school start times decreased by 16.5 percent in teen drivers after the change as compared to the two years before the change. Another study found that adolescent athletes who slept less than eight hours per night were almost twice as likely to have an injury compared with those who slept more than eight hours a night; the likelihood of injury also increased with each additional grade level.
Research published earlier this year found that later school start times help parents get more sleep, too. In the study, high schools started 70 minutes later and middle schools began 50 minutes later. Parents reported being able to sleep in for anywhere from nine to 25 minutes longer in the morning than with the previous school schedules.
SLEEP AFFECTS LEARNING
It’s no surprise that sleep deprivation affects kids’ ability to learn. Drowsiness can impact attention, which can harm academic performance, says Steinbaum. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 28 percent of kids fell asleep in school at least once a week.
Research has shown mixed results in academic improvement when school starts later. One Minnesota study showed a slight improvement in grades, while standardized test scores were not improved. However, a study in Chicago was more definitive and showed that absences were more common and grades lower for first-period classes versus afternoon classes in schools with early start times. Regardless, it’s evident kids can’t learn if they’re dozing off in class and many studies support the fact that more sleep has a positive impact on academics.
LATER START TIME SUCCESS STORIES
In fall 2019, California passed a law that requires most schools to start no earlier than 8 am for middle school and 8:30 am for high school, beginning with the 2022-23 school year. Similar legislation has been introduced in about 20 U.S. states, including New Jersey’s bill, introduced earlier in 2022. The bill requires schools that receive state aid to begin school at 8:30 am or later for high schoolers. If passed, it would go into effect for the 2024-25 school year.
The New Jersey bill currently makes no provision for middle school changes but leaves decisions for implementation up to local school districts. Critics say logistics, including bus pickup times, sports, coordinating childcare for younger siblings and adjustments in family schedules make the change too difficult to enact. They also worry that later start times will impact working parents’ morning schedules. But there are a wide range of ways schools can make changes, including shaving a few minutes off each class period or extending the day, says Steinbaum.
On some level, change is always tough, and changing school start times won’t fix everything. But it’s a start. “If COVID taught us anything, it’s that things you didn’t think were possible can be done, such as when schools shifted to virtual learning overnight,” says Bentsianov. “When it comes to the health and wellness of our kids, we can do what we need to do. We’ll see immense benefits by giving kids the opportunity to get sufficient sleep.”
Head to startschoollater.net for more information.