Many teens dream of sleeping in each day, but it has nothing to do with laziness or lack of ambition. As children move into adolescence, their sleep cycles change. Adolescents naturally stay up later and get up later because of how their bodies release melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Several studies show that teens cannot get out of this melatonin-induced sleep mode until at least 8:00 a.m., making later school start times desirable. Changing school start times has several benefits, but administrators must also consider the drawbacks of changing a familiar schedule.
Reduced Risk of Teen Crashes
Teen drivers have several factors against them when it comes to their risk of motor vehicle accidents. Some teens drive while talking with friends or texting on their cell phones, taking their attention away from the road. Others are not mature enough to make good driving decisions, increasing the risk of accidents. What many people do not know is that sleepiness is a major factor in teen crashes. In fact, AAA says that drowsiness contributes to more than 100,000 crashes per year. When teens drive while they are drowsy, they have slowed reaction times and have a hard time paying attention to the road. Adolescents are especially at risk for driving drowsy because of early school start times. Moving school start times to at least 8:00 would give teens the opportunity to get more sleep each night.
Improved Academic Performance
It is clear that sleep deprivation has a significant effect on academic performance. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that a lack of sleep impacts performance by reducing concentration, creating attention deficits, slowing reaction times, increasing distractibility, impairing decision-making skills and causing forgetfulness. AASM also says that sleep-deprived people are more prone to errors. These effects can have a serious impact on test scores and on the grades students receive on class projects and papers. James Maas, Ph.D., a leading expert on sleep, says that trying to educate teenagers so early in the morning does no good. Even if lectures and activities are interesting and stimulating, the urge to sleep still reduces alertness, memory and understanding.
In 1998, Amy Wolfson, Ph.D. and Mary Carskadon, Ph.D. surveyed more than 3,000 high school students. They found that those who reported poor grades (C, D or F) reported getting 25 fewer minutes of sleep than the students who reported getting A’s and B’s. The poor performers also went to bed approximately 40 minutes later than the students who reported getting good grades. A study from the University of Minnesota confirmed that later school start times can have a positive effect on academic performance. Investigators studied two school districts that changed their start times to 8:30 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. When compared with students attending schools with earlier start times, the students reported getting higher grades. They also had fewer depressive feelings, got more sleep on school nights and had less daytime sleepiness.
Fewer Mood Changes
Moody teenagers may not have depression or other psychological disorders. They may be suffering the ill effects of sleep deprivation caused by starting school too early. AASM reports that sleep deprivation leads to anxiety, irritability, lack of motivation and other symptoms of depression. Delaying school start times can reduce these symptoms, as demonstrated by the results of the University of Minnesota study.
Improved Physical Health
Early school start times do not just affect mental ability and mood. They also have an impact on physical health. Sleep deprivation increases the risk for diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Researchers believe that a lack of sleep alters hormone levels and puts additional stress on the body. Early school start times may contribute to diabetes and obesity in several ways. When teens get up very early for school and do not go to bed until late at night, they may eat more than they would if they got an adequate amount of sleep. Additionally, tired students may reach for foods high in sugar or caffeine, hoping that they will get a temporary boost. This puts them at risk for serious health problems.
Parent Work Schedules
One of the biggest concerns about changing school start times is parent work schedules. When school starts at 7:30 in the morning, most parents can see their teens off to school before going to work at 8:30 or 9:00. If school districts change start times to 8:00 or 8:30, parents will not be able to drive their kids to school and still get to work on time. This is a problem especially for parents of young children, as young kids need supervision while getting ready for school and waiting for the school bus. For teens, later school start times may lead to increased responsibility, as parents may have to go to work before school starts. This means teens will have to get themselves up, prepare breakfast and head to school on their own.
Another issue related to changing school start times is bus schedules and other transportation logistics. Many school districts use the same buses for elementary school students as they do for high school students. If a bus driver has to drop students off at the high school and then pick up young kids for elementary school, delayed school start times would affect this schedule. School districts would need to delay start times for the elementary schools or invest in hiring additional bus drivers to transport the high school students.
Effects on Extracurricular Activities
Some students, parents and administrators are concerned about later school start times because of the possible impact on extracurricular activities. Students who participate in sports, music groups, service learning clubs and other organizations typically meet for several hours after school. If school districts change their start times, these activities will be pushed to later in the day. This would make it difficult for students to participate and still have enough time to study, complete homework assignments, participate in social activities and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.