I’m sure there are teens that greet the day with wide-eyed enthusiasm, but they don’t live in my house—and they probably don’t live in yours. For years, compelling research has prompted doctors, educators and parents to pressure school districts into later school start times. Of course, this has been matched by pushback from schools, towns and parents concerned about the downside of doing so.
California just became the first US state to make later start times mandatory in most public schools. The new law prohibits middle schools from starting before 8 am and high schools from starting before 8:30 am. CA school districts will have three years to make the switch.
Thanks to Governor Phil Murphy’s new four-year pilot program, five NJ districts will experiment with later high school start times, too. “Research shows that academic progress may be negatively impacted by starting school too early,” says Murphy. “By testing the viability of changing start times, we’re exploring ways to improve learning outcomes for New Jersey students.”
HEALTHIER AND HAPPIER KIDS—PERIOD
“It’s hard to deal with things when you’re tired,” says Bert Mandelbaum, MD, a Princeton-based pediatrician and chair of the New Jersey Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics’ task force on adolescence and school start times. “Lack of sleep is terrible for physical health, mental health and from an educational perspective. Mental health in particular gets a major boost from more shut-eye.” Teens face numerous stressors, both academic and social, and it’s hard to effectively deal if you’re worn down.
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation leads to more risky behavior (drugs and alcohol) and well rested kids are primed to make better choices. Well rested teens also enjoy stronger immune systems and better eating and driving habits.
ACADEMICS GET A BOOST
“We see better grades and better test scores, especially in poorer performing school districts, which make big educational strides,” says Mandelbaum. According to the American Psychological Association, studies have shown that later school start times can boost students’ GPAs, as well as scores on state and college admission exams. That makes sense, given that poor sleep messes with concentration, memory retention and simply staying awake in class. And no surprise, extra shut-eye immediately impacts performance in the first two class periods (and benefits last all day).
KIDS SHOW UP ALERT AND ON TIME
“I see the zombie walk a lot less,” says Princeton High School principal Jessica Baxter. Last year, Princeton’s school district adopted later start times after researching science-backed ways to benefit students’ health. “Our goal was just to do what’s right for kids for teaching and wellness,” she says. Despite some initial parent and teacher wariness, the results have been excellent. GPAs are up and students are actually showing up on time. “Our tardies have gone down by 37 percent. It’s a huge, huge number.”
BETTER MORNINGS FOR EVERYONE
Adolescents experience a circadian rhythm shift that makes it difficult to knock out before 11 pm, according to the National Sleep Foundation. “Science tells us that it’s a biological necessity. They’re staying up later because that’s what their brains are programmed to do,” says Baxter. Yet, teens still require eight to 10 hours of sleep to function optimally.
“Their bodies aren’t primed to get up and that’s why they feel so crummy,” says Mandelbaum, adding that extra morning time also allows kids to shower, eat breakfast and feel ready to tackle the day.
TRAFFIC AND BUSING COULD BE A MESS
“Transportation has to be the first problem you solve,” says Mandelbaum. According to studies, revising the current busing model could legitimately increase traffic, delays and costs. Princeton, for example, made it work by having high and middle schoolers share a bus, streamlining pick ups and drop-offs, and working closely with the police to manage downtown traffic. “They’re all surmountable problems that any school board with intelligent leaders can tackle. They just have to have the will to want to do it. Logistically, it’s hard, but from the kids’ perspective, there’s zero downside,” he says.
EXTRACURRICULARS MAY BE AFFECTED
Peggy (pseudonym), a West Orange mom of three girls, fears that later school start times would impact her ability to juggle her kids’ various club and rec lacrosse, volleyball and soccer practices, other extracurriculars and just, well, life. “We have to be able to take two children to different practices in different places almost every day. If school started later, my oldest one couldn’t play club sports at all,” she says. Not to mention, the potential scheduling conflicts with neighboring districts that have earlier dismissal, plus lost class time for athletes needing to cut out ahead of the bell. On the plus side, well rested athletes perform better and get hurt less. Potential solution: Princeton’s rotating last class schedule (with two days earmarked for unstructured time) helps minimize the impact on students who need to leave early.
THEY’LL JUST STAY UP LATER
“One of the myths is that they’ll just stay up later, but evidence shows that they don’t. They go to sleep when they do, and it translates into more sleep overall,” says Mandelbaum. Beware other sleep thieves like Instagram, school projects and Netflix marathons that can still keep teens up way past bedtime if parents don’t help them manage their schedules.
TEENS WON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME
How can they fit it all in when they’ve lost precious afternoon hours? “Hopefully, you become more efficient at things,” says Mandelbaum. This applies to both students who could use free time more effectively (tip: hide their phone) and perhaps cull some activities, and to schools, which could post assignments and exams in advance so kids can get ahead on work.
CHILDCARE AND COMMUTING ISSUES
Juggling getting to work with dropping kids off at school may be tough if school starts later. And if you’ve been relying on an older child to care for a younger sibling after school, later times may present a problem if their schedules no longer align. But some may find it works for their family. “This [later start time] has actually helped some families whose kids were responsible for younger kids,” says Baxter, as the teens are now around to babysit before school.
The bottom line: There are challenges to pushing back start times, but it may be worth it. “The benefits outweigh all the risks and potential problems,” says Baxter. There’s also no one-size-fits-all solution. While national guidelines suggest 8:30 am as a start time, every extra minute later than a school’s current start time will have a positive impact.
—Jennifer Kantor is a lifestyle and parenting writer. She lives in Maplewood with her two kids.