Healthy Sleep And Adolescents: An Argument For Later School Start Times

Healthy Sleep and Adolescents: An Argument for Later School Start Times

November 30, 2015
Healthy Sleep

I remember as a teen the last thing I wanted to do at 9 or 10 o’clock on a weeknight was to go bed, fortunately my parents knew and understood that for optimum health and daytime alertness, teenagers need more than nine hours of sleep each night. Today unfortunately, the average teen only gets seven hours or less. Most teens report feeling sleepy during the day. Unfortunately, the consequences of this sleep deprivation can be extremely serious. Students who are chronically lacking in sleep face difficulties in school, become ill more often, and are at a seriously increased risk of being involved in a drowsy driving accident. What is causing this lack of sleep? There are actually two factors involved. The first is that a teenagers circadian rhythms change during puberty.

The early to bed, early to wake pattern seen in younger children is replaced by a sleep pattern that has teenagers ready to sleep later in the evening and naturally waking up later in the morning. The second factor is school start times. In spite of the fact that it works against a teenager’s natural sleep patterns, most school districts have set their schedules so that high school students have the earliest start times.

Fortunately, the ‘start school later’ movement is getting some traction, and some school districts are making changes. The progress that is being made, however, is coming slowly. This is in great part due to the false assumptions that many make about this issue. Here are a few examples along with some great counter points that bolster the argument for starting school later:

This is Simply a Matter of Self Discipline

Unfortunately, there is no amount of discipline applied internally or externally that can change a teenager’s sleep pattern. A student may be able to force him or herself to lie down at a certain hour, but they certainly cannot make themselves go to sleep. Likewise, a student may develop the self-discipline to wake up in spite of not getting enough sleep, or s/he may do so out of fear of punishment, but any student will still face the risks associated with lack of sleep.

Later School Start Times would cause a Transportation Nightmare

Healthy Sleep And Adolescents: An Argument For Later School Start Times

There is actually some merit to this argument. Many school districts would have some logistical problems to solve to accomplish later start times. Some would have to hire new bus drivers and purchase new buses. Others would need to reconfigure routes.  However, there are a few solutions that have worked for some school districts:

  • Flipped start times where younger students start first and older students start later
  • Changing start times so that all schools in a district start later
  • Eliminating district sponsored busing for older students and providing them with passes for public transportation instead
  • Adding bus stop monitors for young children who may be waiting for school buses before daylight.

The important thing to note is that many school districts are managing later start times with no significant negative impacts.

Teenagers will Never Learn to Adjust to a Normal Work Schedule if  We Let them Sleep Later

While most teenagers will eventually grow up and get jobs that require them to wake up relatively early in the morning, there are many reasons why this is not a valid argument against starting school later. First, as a student leaves adolescence, their sleep needs will change making them more able to go to bed and wake up earlier. Another important thing to remember is that as adults, people have some amount of freedom in choosing jobs that work with their natural sleep patterns, and they can often negotiate start times that allow them to get enough sleep. High school students aren’t able to do this – they simply must be in school during the compulsory times.