7 April 2018
Note: I recently wrote about the controversies that arise every time we change the clocks to and from summer time, and how setting a fixed year-round time always involves school start times. The very early school start times across the U.S. are a growing issue, and I heard from Lisa VanBuskirk right away about it. I invited her to write a guest post, and while it’s outside of my usual fare, it’s an important issue that’s been ignored for too long.
By Lisa VanBuskirk
Many thanks to Dan for allowing this guest post that is a bit outside of the normal range of topics for his audience. I was introduced to Dan through his March 12th blog about year-round Daylight Savings Time (DST) and his recommendation that schools should begin later. Dan’s valid point was that schools for all ages would need to start later if sunrise is later under year-round DST, to ensure children of all ages walking to school or waiting for buses are visible in the morning.
Visibility is not the only concern. So is sleep. Sleep cycles are regulated by daylight. Sleeping at times out-of-sync with these natural cycles undermines growth, development, judgment, learning, and physical and mental health. Unfortunately, current school start times already require our teenagers to adapt sleep patterns out-of-sync with biological needs. A shift to year-round DST would make this problem even worse if school start times are not included in DST discussions
There are solutions. Last year, for example, a Massachusetts commission discussed moving the state to year-round DST (aka Atlantic Time). Included in the commission’s recommendations was a requirement that elementary school start after 8 a.m. and middle and high schools start after 8:30 a.m. Both Florida and California have state legislation discussing DST (but without the connection to school hours). The argument in favor of year-round DST is a perceived preference for more light in the evening. This is somewhat in conflict with our biological clocks which are actually reset by sunrise, not sunset, each day. An example of this morning circadian clock reset is a Maryland sleep-deprived teen telling her mother after DST ended last fall that even though she was tired because it was light at her morning bus stop, she felt better about the start to her school day.
Perhaps more important than DST or not, is the question, why was that teen in Maryland (and in so many other states) so tired in the morning?
We now know that both the amount of sleep you get, and the specific times you get it with respect to your natural sleep cycle, are critical to health, learning, and overall well-being. The average start time for U.S. middle and high school is 8:03 a.m., but many schools start as early as 7:00 a.m. (and even earlier). To start school in the 7 o’clock hour requires traveling in the 5-6 a.m. hour (if not earlier), which means rising as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m. hour to make those pre-dawn school bus stops/car rides/walking to school. These hours make it virtually impossible for most teenagers to get the 9 or so hours of sleep they need per night, and to get it at optimal times. Adolescents simply don’t fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school. They experience a well-documented shift in their sleep cycles of 2-3 more hours in falling asleep, usually not until 11 p.m. or later—a shift seen in other mammals at puberty, even rats, and primates. This shift makes those 5 a.m. teen alarms akin to 2-3 a.m. adult alarms. And sleep cycles aside, many teenagers today are forced to stay up well past 10 p.m. with homework and school events.
[Insert Graphic of sleep shift]
Adolescents need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep for their still growing bodies, but by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) measurements, 90% of American teens don’t get 9 hours of sleep (less than 7 is more typical). The main culprit is the early wake times for the early-starting schools. This is why the CDC in 2015, joined numerous public health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, in recommending that no middle or high school start before 8:30 a.m.
If a school system follows these public health recommendations and adjusts their middle and high school hours (and many have), what happens to the students? The “owl” students actually get more sleep! Counterintuitive though it may seem, students fall asleep at the same time, but now have the opportunity to get their extra ZZZ’s in the morning. Again, it is not just length of sleep that matters, but timing of sleep. Those early alarms disturb the part of the sleep cycle that allows students to consolidate memories and better understand the previous day’s school lessons. Sure, students can waste the opportunity of better sleep by staying up later, but those who wish to sleep more have zero chance to do so under the current arrangement. It is the student and parental responsibility to help the teens take advantage of the potential gift of additional sleep, but they cannot do so if school hours require unhealthy wake times.
In addition to a host of physical and mental health benefits that come from students sleeping more, researchers who have studied schools delaying school hours have documented fewer drowsy driving accidents, higher graduation rates, decreased absenteeism, fewer athletic injuries, more alertness in class, decreased teen substance abuse and risky behaviors, and increased participation in after-school activities. The greater the delay in start times, the greater the potential benefits.
But if middle and high schools start too early, what about elementary schools? When is their best start time? The research on optimum elementary school start time is limited and inconsistent. Elementary students need more sleep than adolescents, but elementary children bedtimes are more amenable to parental control and monitoring. In addition, younger children are more inclined to be morning “larks.” It is arguably not age-appropriate to start elementary schools as late as 9:45 a.m., as happens in my local school system (Anne Arundel County, Maryland). Academics for those students don’t really begin until after 10 a.m.
If the benefits are so great for middle and high school students to start later in the morning, why aren’t more schools doing it? 1) Lack of leadership and 2) Inherent resistance to change.
It takes leadership from the school administration (i.e., Superintendent and Board of Education) to educate the community as to why this change is so important. It takes leadership to rethink how the school day is structured. It takes leadership to challenge the status quo of school bus transportation routing, especially if the buses are used for multiple “tiers” of start times of various age groups. It takes leadership to address the community’s concerns and their resistance to change. It takes leadership to admit that 20+ years after the correlation between teen sleep and school start times were first made by academics; the status quo school hours aren’t working and were never based on any reason other than adult convenience and fiscal concerns overriding student safety and academics. It takes leadership to move the conversation beyond “I agree with the science, but [insert excuse here-too expensive, too hard, we are just fine, we are too unique…]” to develop solutions.
A community’s resistance to change is an understandable human response to the comfort of the status quo. Most families walk a fine line of balancing competing demands of life. Change one element (school hours) and it throws the perception of everything else off. But we must remember the status quo doesn’t always work, even if it is the “known-known.” The “unknown-known” can be intimidating, so many resist it, even though it offers long-term benefits, but perhaps not immediate short-term benefits. Not all families will benefit equally at first from healthy, safe, and age appropriate school hours, but the whole community can benefit. The community’s resistance is frequently based on assumed inflexibility of parental work hours, childcare, athletics, after-school activities or jobs, etc. Some of these may indeed be unalterable, but others may require some careful thought and creative, community-based solutions.
We must ask questions and challenge assumption to move beyond “Not possible” to “How can we?” Without leadership, though, communities (like mine, for 20+ years) get stuck in a vicious cycle of never quite getting beyond “should we” question and remain resistant to change.
So what can I do to ensure safe, healthy, and age-appropriate school hours in my neighborhood school? From a cultural standpoint, sleep has long been underappreciated in America, but that status is beginning to improve. Professional sports teams are taking sleep seriously and celebrities discuss sleep in books and Twitter.
There are many resources available to help educate yourself, your friends, and your school leaders about this issue. Start with a simple internet search of “teen sleep” and “school start times” and you may be surprised that even your local paper may have discussed this topic. In the U.S. Congress and a few states, legislation related to school hours are under consideration. Call a legislator in support of these bills. Write a letter to the editor of your paper or post a link on social media. Start School Later is an all-volunteer, national nonprofit organization, with 112 chapters in 28 states (and growing), dedicated to helping communities and school systems address this challenge head-on. On their website are case-studies of school systems that have successfully changed, frequently asked questions, position papers, a research wiki, flyers, Powerpoints, and more. Check their list of chapters to see if there is one near you, or better yet, find a few like-minded neighbors and start your own chapter!
I don’t know if any states will permanently move to Daylight Savings Time. I personally think it is the change from one clock to another that people don’t like (that resistance to change again). In the meantime, no matter what the time zone, there is plenty we can do to ensure healthy, safe, and age-appropriate school hours for all students.
Lisa VanBuskirk is the Chapter Leader for Start School Later Maryland and Start School Later Anne Arundel County, MD. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Start School Later, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that works at local, state, and national levels to raise awareness about and advocate for safe and healthy school hours. Start School Later, StartSchoolLater.net, and the Start School Later logo are the trademarks of Start School Later, Inc. and are used here with permission. The statements made here are not necessarily those of Start School Later, Inc.