Could Starting School Later Improve Academic Performance?

Most kids groan when the time comes to wake up and get ready for school. With such early start times at some schools in the United States, it’s no wonder kids don’t want to get up. Some schools start as early as 7:00 in the morning, with students in rural areas having to catch the bus as early as 5:30 to get to school on time. Now some education experts and physicians agree that starting school so early in the day is a bad idea. Learn more about why early start times actually hurt adolescents to better understand why this is such an important issue.

Problems with Early Start Times

The amount of sleep adolescents get has a definite impact on their ability to learn. Sleep also affects memory, so students who do not get enough sleep may not remember what they learned. Researchers have found that students who do not get enough sleep do not perform as well academically as they could if they got enough sleep each night. Lack of sleep also has an effect on attention span and motivation. Some of the signs of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may actually be signs of sleep deprivation. These signs include difficulty paying attention, impulsive behavior and distractibility. All of these factors affect academic performance.

A researcher from the University of Illinois examined the results of delayed school start times in a North Carolina district over a period of 10 years. Delaying start times by just one hour led to a 3 percentile point gain in math and reading scores for the average middle school student in that district. The effect was greatest on the bottom half of the distribution, which indicates that delayed school start times may be especially beneficial for struggling students.

Starting school so early is also a safety issue, as many teens drive to school each morning. Fatigue impairs driving skills by slowing reaction times and affecting how drivers make decisions. If teens are sleep deprived, they may also fall asleep at the wheel, putting themselves and others in danger. Discovery News cites a research study that compared schools in two Virginia cities. Schools in one city had earlier start times than schools in the other city. Study investigators found that earlier start times were associated with an increased number of car crashes involving teens.

What Role Does Biology Play?

The body produces melatonin, a hormone that determines when someone will sleep and when someone will be awake. During adolescence, hormone levels shift and the sleep cycle changes. While young children typically go to bed early and get up early, adolescents naturally want to go to bed later and get up later. When adolescents have to get up at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning to get ready for school, they still have a significant amount of melatonin in their blood streams. The melatonin makes them feel sleepy and sluggish, which can have a definite impact on academic performance. In “The Impact of School Daily Schedule on Adolescent Sleep,” Martha Hansen and her team of researchers indicated that early school start times contribute to sleep deprivation in adolescents. This article appeared in a 2005 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

How Could Later Start Times Help?

Mary Carskadon, Ph.D. is a recognized expert on the topic of adolescent sleep. She thinks there are several good reasons to push back school start times and give adolescents enough time to get the sleep they need. One positive effect of later start times would be a reduced risk of depressed moods and mood swings, as fatigue and sleep deprivation can both affect mood. Since sleep deficiency is associated with metabolic disorders, obesity and other health conditions, starting school later could also help adolescents prevent these problems. With more and better sleep, students are more alert and have improved cognitive skills. This means that academic performance could improve significantly. Carskadon also believes that later school start times would reduce absenteeism and tardiness.

Results

A 2008 article in “The New York Times” discussed the effect of later start times in some districts. One Kentucky district pushed start times from 7:30 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Attendance improved and students achieved higher scores on standardized tests. In 1997, two cities in Minnesota changed their start times to 8:30 and 8:40. The later start times led to improved grades and reduced dropout rates and tardiness. When schools in Fayette County, Kentucky pushed start times to 8:30 a.m., there were fewer teenagers involved in car crashes.

How to Get Involved

Several organizations are working to promote later school start times in United States Schools. Start School Later has a petition available for those who support later start times. The organization is made up of medical professionals, parents, education experts and caregivers who are concerned about the negative effects of early school start times on children and adolescents.

About Leigh Ann Morgan

I write about all sorts of things but ever since I completely got rid of my constant neck pain by finding the perfect pillow, I've started to learn as much as I can about sleep quality and sleep disorders.

Comments

  1. Charlene Sanders says:

    I am a parent of a freshman and a 5th grader. I find it a bit barbaric that my 9thbgrader has to be up at 5:30 to catch the bus at 6am. I am hoping this changes before my younger child is faced with the same dilemma!

  2. Matthew Proctor says:

    Yeah, when I was in high school the starting bell rang at 7:30am. I attended a “magnet” school and had about an hours worth of commute on the bus each morning. I remember waiting out for the bus in the dark at 5:00am just to make sure I caught it. I could barely keep my head up during lectures.

  3. What’s so amazing is that people from all over the country have been experiencing the same thing for decades now, and the same frustration getting school systems to make a change in the best interest of the kids and communities (and with the evidence cited in this article, there’s no question that getting kids up and off to school after sunrise is in their best interests). The magnet schools in my county also pose the biggest problem in terms of the earliest bus, but even kids going to neighborhood schools sometimes have to be out of the house before 6 to wait on dark back roads with no sidewalks (or, perhaps worse, are out driving at these hours). And in terms of barely keeping heads up, check out this unstaged video made by kids at a high school that starts at 7:17 a.m.: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35jHiJ-5E1o . Of course, early start times are by no means the only reason for sleep deprivation in teens, but we now have evidence that they play a major role, and one that we have the power to change if we only had the will to do so.

  4. Dr. Teresa Ryan says:

    It is frustrating when there is such a huge body of evidence supporting later start times for older kids. I live in a community that has a great school but high schoolers are out waiting for a bus at 6:00 am. We have presented the research to our school board for over two years now and we are still wrestling with the issue. I have a daughter who needs as much help as possible just to keep grades at B and C level. If later start times will help her to learn and retain, I need to make sure she is given that opportunity. There are probably a lot of kids who will do well regardless of start times. But as the parent of a struggling student who faces many developmental issues related to an early childhood in an Eastern European institution, I need to make sure she has the best academic platform available.

  5. Leigh Ann Morgan says:

    I agree that school start times are way too early. I had to get up at 5:30 every morning to catch the bus by 6:45. That’s not as bad as some students, but the major problem was that the bus only picked us up that early because they used the same bus to pick up the elementary school kids. So the bus dropped us off at the high school at 7:10, but school did not start until 8:25. That was an entire hour and 15 minutes of wasted time, during which we were made to sit in the cafeteria the entire time.

  6. The state of the evidence has reached a point where I think it’s negligent not to work for change. The petition (http://bit.ly/t6yxEQ ) and growing national coaltion described in this article are the first steps in that direction.However, as a genuinely grassroots effort, we need more input and official endorsements from influential organizations representing doctors, nurses, psychiatrtists, psychologists, social workers sleep researchers, and so forth who are willing to step forward and push for legislation on this issue at the local, state, and national level. If anyone reading can help with this, please contact me via StartSchoolLater.net. Thank you!