The Anchorage School District in Anchorage, Alaska is the latest in a long line that have found themselves in the middle of a lively debate: weighing research about the ideal school start times for kids against the resources of the district and the practical concerns of parents.
Research on ideal school start times has been around for decades, with numerous studies finding a correlation between later school start times and better sleep, improved attendance, decreased tardiness, less falling asleep in class, better grades, and fewer motor vehicle crashes.
It’s not a matter of coddling kids who don’t want to wake up on time for school.
It’s about a quantifiable difference in health, school performance, and safety that later school start times have been shown to make.
In fact, the evidence is so compelling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Sleep Association (ASA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the American Medical Association (AMA) have all released statements encouraging districts to make the transition to later start times.
Most recommendations indicate that schools shouldn’t start any earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Yet, across the United States, many schools continue to ring that first bell at 7:30 a.m. and earlier.
So, if later start times are healthier for students, why aren’t more districts making the change?
There’s no single — or simple — answer.
“The first districts that were making these changes were making them in the 90s. The fact that we’re still talking about this in 2018 is a reflection of how hard it is to accomplish,” Phyllis Payne, co-founder of SLEEP in Fairfax, an organization working to establish later start times for middle and high schools in Fairfax, Virginia, told Healthline.
There are a lot of factors that districts must consider before making a change to later start times.
These include shared resources such as busses, and difficulties managing shared schedules. For example, if middle schools and high schools start later, should that mean elementary schools have to start earlier?
It’s a complicated issue, and those districts that do decide to make changes aren’t always successful.
“My school starts at 9:30 a.m. One year we flipped with the high school and started at 7:30 a.m. because of the research [on ideal high school start times]. It was an utter failure and lasted just that year,” Katie McNair, a middle school teacher in Florida, said.
Stacy Simera, communications director for the group Start School Later, explained that there’s a problem moving other grade levels to earlier start times in order to accommodate later start times for high schoolers because, “Middle school is when the biological changes occur that create the later shift in sleep cycle.”
She described such schedule changes like the one McNair experienced as “throwing middle schoolers under the bus.”
Simera pointed Healthline to a concerning study that also linked sleep disturbances in middle school with substance use later in life.
One of the biggest problems for many districts is that they have shared busses among all three education levels (elementary, middle, and high school).
Finding a solution that gets kids to school with the same resources already at hand will mean someone always has to start earlier.
The natural solution might seem to be giving elementary school students the earliest shift since they’re typically the earliest risers anyway.
But in some areas, that may mean young children waiting at a bus stop in the dark part of the year — a solution not all parents are comfortable with.
Further parental concerns
Working parents have their own arguments against shifting school start times.
In addition to managing their work schedule while trying to get kids to and from school, some argue that earlier elementary school start times means having to come up with several hours of after-school care — putting a dent in the family’s monthly budget.
And then there are those who believe that shifting school start times is simply coddling kids in a way that doesn’t prepare them for the “real world.”
However, Payne was quick to dispel that myth, saying, “The real world does not require everyone to get up at 6 a.m. We have choices as adults.”
She also pointed out that most adults don’t work 8-hour workdays, then follow up with four hours of team practices, after-school jobs, and homework.
“It’s pretty exhausting when you actually look at the schedules these kids keep,” Payne said.
Those packed schedules are often one of the reasons some parents argue against later school start times for high schoolers.
But Payne explained those concerns often aren’t worth the hype they receive, either.
“It’s a challenge because it’s a change,” she said. “But it can totally be done. Sport schedules adjust, local businesses that hire teens continue to hire teens, and the kids thrive.”
She also went on to point out one other benefit, explaining that juvenile justice experts love the later start times for middle school and high school students. They say it often results in less time kids are left alone after school before their parents get off work — which means less time for them to potentially get in trouble.
The risk of maintaining the status quo
Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, has been presenting on this topic for years.
She talked to Healthline about the myths and misconceptions and explained, “All adolescents experience a normal shift in circadian rhythms with age and in association with the onset of puberty.”
According to Owens, most teens are biologically programmed to fall asleep after 11 p.m. and wake up at 8 a.m. or later. They can’t just force themselves to go to bed earlier.
And neither can their parents.
Earlier start times mean these kids are then required to function and learn during their lowest level of alertness in the day. They’re also effectively robbed of REM sleep in the process.
The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School confirms this, touching on the changes in our sleep patterns throughout the course of our lives.
While individual needs may vary, on average, younger children tend to wake up earlier and adolescents experience changes in their circadian alerting system that delays their sleeping and waking hours.
This shift typically moves back once development is complete and adolescents enter adulthood.
The potential new standard
Amanda Okesky is a mom in Tennessee who’s seen firsthand the positive benefits of a later school schedule.
“Later start times made a world of difference for my teenage boys,” she told Healthline. “Getting them up is easier, they will actually eat breakfast now, and their grades improved tremendously. It’s been the best decision our school system has made.”
While shifting school schedules to later start times may not always be easy for districts to accommodate, the health benefits appear to be well worth the effort.
For parents who are interested in learning more about how they can help convince their school district to begin making this shift, the organization Start School Later has tools and success stories from parents who have been able to make a difference.
According to Payne, it’s one of the best things parents can do for their kids.
“To be an active, involved learner in the classroom, you need to be well-rested. We are handicapping our kids when we deprive them of sleep with our start-time policies.”