Are early school start times bad for adolescent students’ health?

The new pencil smell may still be fresh, but students around the country are steadily getting into a routine as school has been in full swing for a few weeks now.

Their schedules are packed with sports, recreational after-school activities, homework, and friends. It’s no wonder that students (and their parents) go to bed exhausted each night!

Would later school start times help this problem? Experts think so, especially when it comes to middle and high school students.

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The latest data, as part of the 2015–2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey (conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), reveals an average high school start time of 7:59 a.m. and an average middle school start of 8:04 a.m.

This is earlier than the advocated 8:30 a.m. start time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

So, why 8:30 a.m. (at least)?

The AAP, the American Medical Association and others say that this suggested time is based on a “myriad of health and academic risks” associated with early school start times.

According to the AMA, sleep deprivation continues to negatively impact the health and well-being of adolescents in the United States, as it has for years.

“Sleep deprivation is a growing public health issue affecting our nation's adolescents, putting them at risk for mental, physical and emotional distress and disorders," said AMA board member William E. Kobler, M.D. "Scientific evidence strongly suggests that allowing adolescents more time for sleep at the appropriate hours results in improvements in health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. We believe delaying school start times will help ensure middle and high school students get enough sleep, and that it will improve the overall mental and physical health of our nation's young people."

Studies reveal that only 32 percent of American teenagers reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night. The AAP recommends that teenagers between 14 and 17 years of age should get 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night to achieve optimal health and learning. Studies have also shown that puberty is accompanied by a biological delay or shift in circadian rhythm, contributing to later bedtimes and wake times among teens.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to poor memory retention, mood disorders, hypertension, metabolic disorders (including diabetes), and impaired immune function. Body weight is also directly related to sleep and those with shorter sleep durations are more likely to be underweight, overweight, or obese.  

As this Slate article pointed out, although these recommendations are well-known, public reception to implementing later start times has been slow. It’s hard to deny the importance of sleep for anyone — no matter the age, but opposition to early school start times often stems from a parent or caregiver’s inability to (literally or figuratively) work around a later school time, with either their own work schedules or their other children’s school schedules being affected. Others say it’s good practice for the “real world” or that teens should put the blue-light emitting devices down at night, or just go to bed earlier. School districts also start early to accommodate for extra classes, sports, and other after-school activities.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said Dr. Judith Owens, MD. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

The research may be clear, but the solution for the millions of diverse students and their families is not that cut and dry. Roughly 400 districts around the country have made the shift to later start times, but only time will tell what the thousands of other school districts will do.

Do you think middle schools and high schools should start later? Do you think earlier times are a more practical preparation for what a student will face in the working world? Don’t have strong feelings either way? Let us know your opinions in the comments or share your thoughts on Facebook.

 

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