Mystery still surrounds what sleep is actually for, but multiple research studies suggest that it is critical to brain development, memory function, and cognitive skills, especially among children and teenagers, according to experts and advocates at a symposium here this month.
Organized by a pair of Maryland-based advocacy groups—the Lloyd Society and Start School Later—the event explored adolescents’ need for sleep, and the consequences of and need for appropriate start times for schools across the country.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact benefits of later start times. But a May 2012 study in Education Next looked at more than 146,000 middle schoolers in the Wake County, N.C., district and found that pushing back their start times an hour increased standardized math and reading scores by 2 to 3 percentile points.
Although the sample is small, the study’s main author, economist Finley Edwards from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said the findings are significant enough to be important, suggesting that later start times can be a relevant policy change for those districts trying to find ways to improve students’ academic achievement.
Sleep deprivation is considered a widespread, chronic health problem among adolescents, according to the Arlington, Va.-based National Sleep Foundation, and can have negative effects on their cognitive development and cause mental and emotional problems.
Experts recommend that high-school-age youths get around nine hours of sleep per night, but the reality is that many teenagers get seven hours or less, according to the sleep foundation.
Sleep changes in adolescents are “kind of a perfect-storm scenario,” said Dr. Judith Owens, the director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, with many factors “conspiring to increase the risks of insufficient sleep in this population.”
As adolescents hit puberty, their natural sleep-wake cycles begin to shift, and they are unable to fall asleep as early as they did when they were in elementary school. Hence, it’s normal for teenagers to be awake until about 11 p.m., according to Dr. Owens.
But with some schools starting as early as 7 a.m., that means many teenagers aren’t getting the recommended nine hours of sleep for proper rest and development.
As more research becomes available on the relationship between adolescent sleep and school start times, educators, parents, and students throughout the country are taking steps to bring start times into the spotlight.
When the school system in Arlington County, Va., first considered pushing back high school start times in 1999, officials had to take into consideration the start times for all school levels and for outside programs like child care, said Deborah DeFranco, a supervisor for the health, physical, and driver education department.
One of the challenges Arlington County faced was competition for interscholastic sports and facilities use. But after some trial and error, Ms. DeFranco said, and work with neighboring Fairfax County, Va., and the Arlington recreation department to share facilities, educators were able to devise a strategy that allowed everyone to participate in something.
Around the same time Arlington was looking at the issue, Ms. DeFranco said, other counties, including Fairfax and Maryland’s Montgomery County, were also examining their start times, but most of those movements died. She credits Arlington’s success in changing its school start times to the superintendent at the time, Robert Smith, and a focused school board.
In Maryland, a bill was introduced in February to set up a task force to study school start times and sleep needs of adolescents.
The Maryland chapter of Start School Later, a conference co-sponsor and a national coalition of parents, educators, students, and professionals, started a petition specifically for Montgomery County, to change schools’ start times to 8:15 a.m. or later.
Health and Behavior
Michael Rubinstein, the public coordinator for the organization, said there’s an untapped interest in the issue, and the online petition helped catalyze it.
“We need to start with the premise that ‘it must be done,’ ” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, a medical writer, historian, and co-founder of Start School Later.
In Columbia, Mo., the board of education voted 6-1 to delay start times for the district’s high schools after a grassroots effort led by Student’s Say, a student-run advocacy group in the district, successfully pushed to delay start times from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., according to a Start School Later press release.
When adolescents don’t get adequate sleep, they experience health problems, according to the National Sleep Foundation, including impaired alertness and attention, which is important in academics but also important for those teenagers who drive to and from school.
Sleep deprivation can also inhibit the ability to solve problems, cope with stress, and retain information, and is often associated with problems such as depression and substance abuse.
The other conference co-sponsor, the Silver Spring, Md.-based Lloyd Society, which studies at-risk youths, looked at whether sleep deprivation had an impact on youth behavior.
According to Ann Gallagher, one of the society’s principal investigators, statistics show that violent crimes committed by teenagers tend to occur when school is out for the day, which implies that later end times could narrow the opportunity for such crimes.
Studies show that insufficient sleep was associated with a range of risky behaviors, including substance abuse, sexual activity, and aggression.
Dr. Owens of Children’s National Medical Center suggested that even a modest change, say 30 minutes, can improve teenagers’ sleep habits, which then may have an impact on their health and academic performance.
Teenagers have erratic sleep cycles, Dr. Owens said, and they try to overcompensate during the weekend to “make up” for lost sleep, but the cycle just keeps going. “They’re in a semipermanent state of jet lag,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Experts: Later School Start Helps Sleep-Deprived Teens