School & District Management

Teens Need More Sleep, But Districts Struggle to Shift Start Times

By Evie Blad — September 22, 2015 6 min read
Students arrive at The School of Creative Studies, a magnet school for grades 6-12 in Durham, N.C., last week. Next year, most of Durham’s high school students will start around 9 a.m., allowing them to get more sleep.
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Most high school students in Durham, N.C., start school at 7:30 a.m., a time that’s early enough to negatively impact their engagement and focus in the classroom, researchers say.

That’s because biological shifts during the teenage years drive the need for longer sleep durations and later wake times, research shows. That means requiring an older teenager to wake up at 7 a.m. is like asking a teacher to wake up at 4:30 a.m.

So, at the direction of its school board, the Durham district will shift its high school start times to 9 a.m. next year. The hope is that the district’s responsiveness to sleep research will pay off in gains in student engagement and academic achievement.

“I think the board’s intent is spot on; it’s to try to benefit every student we can benefit to increase student learning,” Assistant Superintendent Scott Denton said. “There will be some pain for some families, and we don’t take that lightly, but at the same time, the investment those families make will pay off down the road.”

Many districts start their high school day between 7 and 8 a.m. Many have explored the process of changing start times only to retreat altogether or to make smaller, incremental changes after hearing pushback from parents and uncovering logistical issues associated with changing bell schedules. Others never even consider changes, despite reams of research and expert recommendations.

Five out of every six U.S. middle and high schools ring their first bell before 8:30 a.m., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August. That’s despite a 2014 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that secondary schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better sync with students’ changing sleep cycles.

“Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental-health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance,” the organization said in a position paper. “But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.—and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.”

Lazy Teenagers?

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supported the suggestion, tweeting out articles about the report with his own comment. “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later,” Duncan wrote.

An international group of sleep researchers expanded that recommendation in August, when they said classes should ideally start no earlier than 10 a.m. for 16-year-olds and no earlier than 11 a.m. for 18-year-olds. The researchers—from Oxford University, Harvard University, and the University of Nevada—acknowledged schools were not likely to follow their guidance, in part because of logistical concerns, and because schools still don’t recognize the importance of changing biological rhythms in the teen years.

“The impact of early school times on adolescents is not understood by most educators: A common belief is that adolescents are tired, irritable, and uncooperative because they choose to stay up too late, or are difficult to wake in the morning because they are lazy,” the researchers wrote. “Educators tend to think that adolescents learn best in the morning and if they simply went to sleep earlier, it would improve their concentration.”

Other research shows that teens’ ability to make responsible decisions, like going to bed on time, is still developing during adolescence. And the use of items with “blue light,” like tablets and smartphones, close to bedtime can affect the quality of their sleep. But teens are also affected by a changing cycle that affects many other mammals, the researchers wrote.

Over time, severe sleep disruption can lead to a host of effects that weaken classroom performance, like reduced concentration, attention, and memory capabilities.

But even administrators who are committed to changing bell schedules say it is one of the decisions that sparks the most concerns, comments, and even resistance from parents and members of the public.

That’s because many school districts use school buses in shifts, taking several waves of students to different schools throughout the morning. Changing start times for secondary schools typically forces districts to either expand their transportation budgets to buy or lease more buses, or to also shift start times for elementary schools to make the schedules work.

Tough Decisions

Shifting school times often causes conflicts with carefully crafted family schedules and the timing of afterschool activities and sports.

A student boards a bus bound for the School of Creative Studies, a magnet for grades 6-12 in Durham, N.C. Next year, most of the district’s high schools will start around 9 a.m. to allow teens more time to sleep.

The Fairfax County, Va., district, for example, took years of planning and discussions to change its start times, a plan that took effect this year. But even after seeking community input and consulting with the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, the district’s new start times fall short of the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Under the new schedule, high school start times shifted from 7:20 a.m. to between 8:00 and 8:10 a.m., and middle schools start earlier, shifting from 7:55 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. The move cost the 185,000-student district about $5 million, according to the plan approved by the school board.

In nearby Montgomery County, Md., parents and students campaigned for later high school start times for years, even holding “sleep-in” protests in pajamas and sleeping bags. But their efforts won only a modest change in schedules.

The 157,000-student district’s board voted down a plan to move the earliest high school start times from 7:25 a.m. to 8:50 a.m., in part because of a $3.9 million annual cost associated with the change. The board opted instead to shift the earliest bells to 7:45, giving teens 20 extra minutes of sleep.

The change wasn’t easy in Durham, either, district leaders said.

Following the research, the school board first advised leaders to draft plans for starting high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The district then surveyed parents and held focus groups to see how amenable families would be to various schedule changes, Denton said.

“It was almost 50-50 for a lot of the questions we asked,” he said.

Parents were concerned about elementary school start times that wouldn’t align with their work schedules and later end times for high school students, which would leave some younger siblings at home alone after they were dropped off.

But there are also families who will benefit from a school schedule change, Denton said, “and the reason you don’t hear from those people is they’re used to dealing with it.”

“There are going to be logistical challenges no matter what,” he added.

The plan the board eventually adopted required many elementary schools to start earlier to compensate for changes at the high school level without adding transportation costs. District leaders acknowledge it will take some time to get used to the changes, and there may be some bumps in the road.

It’s a change many districts say they don’t have the capacity, resources, or parental will to make.

But authors of the recent international report say it’s worth it.

“The financial cost of most other interventions to improve health and attainment in adolescents appears to be far greater than later starts in schools,” they wrote. “Implementation of later starts may have some financial costs depending on the education system, though such costs are relatively modest in comparison with the positive impact.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as Despite Research on Teens’ Sleep, Change to School Start Times Difficult

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