Student Well-Being

Teens Need to Start School Later. No More Excuses, Experts Say 

By Elizabeth Heubeck — August 15, 2023 4 min read
Photo of teenage boy turning off alarm clock
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Perhaps no one dreads setting their alarm clocks to rise for the start of the new school year more than teenagers.

The nation’s average public high school start time is 8:07 a.m.; nearly 10 percent begin before 7:30 a.m. Either start time likely requires teens to rise by at least 7:00 am—a time identified by health experts as part of adolescents’ peak sleepy hours. That’s thanks largely to a natural change in teens’ circadian rhythm—the “sleep-wake phase delay”—which results in later sleep onset and wake times. The result is a significant mismatch between this demographic’s preferred sleep time and social demands: namely, school.

This is not breaking news. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement recommending that school districts push start times to 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high schools in an effort to help adolescents achieve the recommended eight-and-a-half to 10 hours of sleep per night—a goal that approximately three-quarters of teenage students fall short of on school nights.

Chronic sleep deprivation is bad for teens. It’s been linked to a number of physical and mental health risks, lowered academic performance, and overall poorer quality of life. And while plenty of factors contribute to teens’ insufficient sleep, researchers have pinpointed early school start times as a key, and modifiable, contributor to the problem. But despite the well-documented and publicized research in favor of later school start times for adolescents and teens, countless districts resist the change—often citing barriers such as existing bus and sports schedules and before- and after-school daycare disruptions for younger students.

Challenging the status quo

Phyllis Payne, a public health educator and advocate for healthy sleep among teens, has heard all of these excuses and more.

Some of them stand out for their seeming absurdity. “School officials have told us, ‘We have too many waterways’ and ‘Our schools are at too many altitudes,’’ said Payne, implementation director at Start School Later, a nonprofit organization that has helped hundreds of school districts nationwide change to later start times. “I tell them it can be done.”

Payne should know. As a co-founder of the advocacy group SLEEP in Fairfax, Va., Payne supported Fairfax County school system, one of the nation’s largest districts, as it undertook the initiative to move its high school start times about an hour later, to either 8:00 or 8:10 am. Even with 1,600 buses transporting about 170,000 students to 200 different schools, the district made the change effective for the 2015-2016 academic year.

“The real challenge is that it’s different than what people are used to doing,” Payne said, referring to later start times. Overcoming resistance to change is often the first step in making it happen. Beyond that, there’s no single ‘magic bullet’ to moving to a later start time, she explained. But, say those who’ve been involved in the transition, the following factors are key.

Leadership buy-in

“When superintendents set it up [schedule change] as a must-have for the teens in the community, then their teams come together,” Payne said.

Convincing superintendents that it’s a priority is simple once they take the time to learn about the science behind it, Payne explained. Simply taking a glimpse at the AAP’s long, curated list of adverse effects of chronic sleep loss in adolescents is fairly convincing, which includes increased rates of motor vehicle crashes; increased risk for anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation; cognitive deficits, especially with more complex tasks; and lower academic achievement.

“Once they become aware of how important this is they’ll want to get this done,” she said.

Thinking holistically

Anne Arundel County, Md., schools, with 85,000 students, discussed for years the possibility of moving to a later start time for high school students, said spokesperson Bob Mosier.

That discussion evolved over the years from one that focused exclusively on high school start times to one that instead referenced what they began to term “healthier school start and dismissal times.”

“You can’t just pick up and change your high school times in isolation,” said Mosier, whose district in 2022-2023 instituted a new high school start time of 8:30 a.m., about an hour later than previous years. Every division is affected, as evidenced by his district’s need to ramp up after-school child care offerings to families with younger children once the new schedule was put in place.

With the previous, earlier high school dismissal time, high school students could be available to babysit younger siblings. In some instances, parents’ work schedules had to shift to accommodate the schedule changes.

“We had plenty of families who needed child care after the change who hadn’t before,” Mosier said.

To help address the issue, the district organized and held a childcare fair for parents.

Payne acknowledged similarly detailed planning in supporting Fairfax County’s move to later high school start times. “We examined all kinds of minutia,” said Payne. It involved everything from analyzing traffic patterns to involving the local police department to plan for changes to crossing guard schedules.

Strong communication

Working through the details of a forthcoming schedule change is part of the solution. Communicating these details to stakeholders is as critical, Mosier explained. Anne Arundel County schools spent months preparing families for the pending change. They used multiple avenues of messaging: phone, email, text, and websites in both English and Spanish that explained the pending schedule change, why it was happening, and how families would be affected. In addition, each of the district’s board members created a short video explaining the rationale behind the new start time and invoking the sleep science supporting it.

“Everyone knew it was happening,” Mosier said. “No one was surprised.”

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