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 last week.
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 effects of—and the necessity for—appropriate start times for schools across the country.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact benefits of later start times; however, a study published in May 2012 by Education Next looked at more than 146,000 middle schoolers in the Wake County, N.C., public school system and found that pushing back their start times an hour increased standardized math and reading scores by 2 percentile points 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 is “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 “basically conspiring to increase the risks of insufficient sleep in this population.”
As adolescents hit puberty, their natural sleep-wake cycles begin to shift such that 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., this means many teenagers aren’t getting the recommended nine hours of sleep for proper rest and development. This sleep loss can be further exacerbated by environmental factors like light exposure from computer screens or mobile phones, which can distract the brain from thinking it’s time to sleep.
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 school start times into the spotlight.
Maryland and Virginia
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 county’s Health, Physical and Driver Education department.
One of the challenges Arlington County faced was competition for interscholastic sports and facilities use. There were some activities that were “non-negotiable,” such as golf and cross country, considered daylight sports, Ms. DeFranco said, but after some trial and error and work with neighboring Fairfax County, Va., and the Arlington department of parks and recreation to share facilities for practice and game time, educators were able to devise a working 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 later 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.
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, “The science is now at a point where start times could really be changed, but it requires community involvement,” she said.
In Columbia, Mo., the board of education on Monday voted 6-1 to delay start times for the district’s high schools after a grassroots effort led by Students’ 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.
Consequences of Sleep Loss
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 emotional and behavioral problems such as depression and substance abuse.
The other conference co-sponsor, the Silver Spring, Md.-based Lloyd Society, an organization that studies at-risk youth populations, 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 predominantly by teenagers tend to occur when school is out for the day, which implies that later end times could narrow the window of opportunity for such crimes.
The correlation between sleep and behavior still needs to be explored, but “for every hour of reduced sleep, the increase in crime was greater and the level of violence greater still,” Ms. Gallagher said, citing a 2011 meta-analysis published in Preventive Medicine that looked at data from the 2007 national youth risk-behavior survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. The findings revealed that insufficient sleep was associated with a range of at-risk behaviors, including substance abuse, sexual activity, and aggression.
“Do we know why they’re truant? No. Do we know why they’re violent? No. Do we think this is exclusively related to school start time? No.” But, Ms. Gallagher asks, “can we mitigate some of their life difficulties in a way to improve their outcomes?”
Some schools may not have to start a full hour later like the Arlington public schools did. Dr. Owens of Children’s National Medical Center suggested that even a modest change, say 30 minutes, can have a significant effect on 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.
The evidence, according to Dr. Owens, “is irrefutable. It’s up to the community to decide whether to act on” it.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Experts Make a Case for Later School Start Times