In the current environment which focuses on improving measurable outcomes for all our schools, there is one simple, cost-effective change that could make a big difference.
The change? Shift the morning start time for our high schools to 8:30 or later.
There is very clear research indicating that delaying the morning start time for high schools has a major impact not just on improving grades and test scores, but also on improving physical and mental health students and decreasing teen driving accidents.
Medical research is clear that teens experience a "sleep phase shift" during adolescence that means they are alert later into the night than children and adults. The average teen needs 9.25 hours of sleep a night. When they don't even get drowsy till after 11 and have to arise for an 8 a.m. school start, they are bound to experience the negative consequences of sleep deprivation – fatigue, irritability, mood swings, depression, and even obesity. And it shows up at school, in tardiness, truancy, disciplinary issues, mental health problems, and high-risk behaviors. For more information, see http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/school-start-time-and-sleep.
Conversely, there are several controlled, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate improved academic functioning in schools that delayed their start times; the most notable are the U.S. Air Force Academy study and in Minnesota.
With later start times, there are dramatic improvements in attendance, continuous enrollment, behavior, alertness, and learning. Increased sleep also benefits athletic performance, mental health, and health.
Some excerpted findings from the research:
- A four-year study of more than 6,100 first-semester United States Air Force Academy freshman published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, found a one-hour delay in the first class increased grades by 0.15 standard deviations.
- In 1999, school districts in Lexington, Kentucky, delayed start times for high school students county-wide by one hour to 8:30 a.m. Average crash rates for teen drivers in the study county in the two years after the change in school start time dropped 16.5%, compared with the two years prior to the change, whereas teen crash rates for the rest of the state increased 7.8% over the same time period.
- A study published in the September 2010 issue of the journal Sleep found that teenagers who slept less than eight hours per weeknight ate more fatty foods and snacks than adolescents who slept eight hours or more.
- A 2011 CDC study of 12,154 high school students also found an association between diminished sleep and increased likelihood of health-risk behaviors, including use of cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana, sexual activity, and serious consideration of attempting suicide.
For an excellent layperson's overview of this issue, I recommend the relevant chapter of Bronson and Merryman's 2009 book, Nurture Shock: The New Thinking About Children, pp. 29-44. For links to much of the research and to information about other schools and districts who have shifted to later times with positive effects, and a description of the obstacles to overcome, see “The Impact of School Start Times on Adolescent Health and Academic Performance.”
I hope our school board will seriously consider making this change to create school schedules that are centered around the developmental needs of teens, rather than the schedules of adults. It would improve outcomes not just for individuals but also for the entire district.
Susanna Marshland, LCSW, is a social worker who witnesses first-hand the effects of sleep deprivation in teens. This column is a modified version of a letter she sent to board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District.