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Should Secondary Schools Start Later?

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Should we change the time we begin our school day for our secondary students? We were recently encouraged by a pediatrician to consider the issue of school start times. Although debated for years, this issue appears to remain unresolved. Why are school start times early for adolescents and later for elementary aged children?  The research about the how lack of sleep affects learning and behavior suggests sleep deprivation is a bad thing. The National Sleep Foundation reports:

The roots of the problem include poor teen sleep habits that do not allow for enough hours of quality sleep; hectic schedules with afterschool activities and jobs, homework hours and family obligations; and a clash between societal demands, such as early school start times, and biological changes that put most teens on a later sleep-wake clock.

 But the report continues:

Research shows the typical adolescent's natural time to fall asleep may be 11 pm or later; because of this change in their internal clocks, teens may feel wide awake at bedtime, even when they are exhausted (Wolfson & Carskadon, 1998 as cited in the National Sleep Foundation Report).

 A decision to change start times in a school district is one of the most complex decisions we can make in schools.  Nothing we do, nothing, is without unintended or willing consequences.  Attending to the physical developmental needs of our secondary students by changing start times appears to make students the beneficiaries. A good look at some of the variables might shed light on the reasons for remaining in the current schedule and explain reticence to the change.

Why do secondary schools traditionally have earlier start times than the other schools in the district? Here are some of the historical explanations:

  • Adolescents are needed, or need to be, in the work force, In the agrarian model, they work on the family farms. Or, they have after school jobs to support the family or earn college or car funds. The early start time allows for this. It does, however, further complicate the learning issue since those young people have multiple demands on their non-school hours.
  • Childcare is a key issue for many families. Afternoon day care is costly and sometimes unavailable. In order for the older children (if there are any in the family) to be home to receive the younger children, they have to start their day earlier...and be home earlier.
  • There are parents who express concerns that if they go to work their teenager(s) may not get up and go to school on their own when no one is home to be sure they are up and out. 
  • Sports involve other school districts. Since start times are a local decision, should one, or some schools in an athletic league decide to change start times and others not, the leagues would have a new challenge. Some schools would not have their students ready to play until an hour or more later than others. A logistical concern with repercussions for youth and families alike.
  • There are the greatest number of arguments against having all grade levels open at the same time. This option likely involves increasing busses and related transportation costs and mixing 5 year olds and 18 year olds on those busses...a great deal of hesitation surrounds that issue.

These are just the obvious barriers to change.  In individual communities, there can be a myriad of others. 

How do we address the biological, researched, developmental needs of our adolescent student body while taking into account its financial impact?  Isn't that where the problem lies?  Of course, there are other realities of younger children being up and ready for school while they wait for school day to begin. Breakfast programs and morning school are responses.

Consider that Mary Carskadon began publishing research about sleep and adolescents in the 1970's! Clearly this isn't new information for us.  Over 40 years later, we are still struggling with the tug between spending money and what is good for children.  Or is that not the issue?  Is it that the system is so entrenched that resistance to change is stronger than research and reason?

Carskadon explains:

Even without the pressure of biological changes, if we combine an early school starting time--say 7:30 am, which, with a modest commute, makes 6:15 am a viable rising time--with our knowledge that optimal sleep need is 9 1/4 hours, we are asking that 16-year olds go to bed at 9 pm. Rare is a teenager that will keep such a schedule. Schoolwork, sports practices, clubs, volunteer work, and paid employment take precedence. When biological changes are factored in, the ability even to have merely 'adequate' sleep is lost.

We are facing challenges and having disagreements over curriculum, standards, and assessment today because we are concerned about the impact on our students. Isn't it time to finally consider the effect of our not making an informed decision about school start times?  We have evidence sleep patterns affect the growing adolescent's capacity to perform at their best.  This might be a good time to come to consensus and put this decision to rest (pun intended). Moreover, Mary Carskadon suggests:

Given that the primary focus of education is to maximize human potential, then a new task before us is to ensure that the conditions in which learning takes place address the very biology of our learners....Young people who do not get enough sleep night after night carry a significant risk for fall asleep automobile crashes; emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence; health complaints; tobacco and alcohol use; impaired cognitive function and decision-making; and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics.* 

We hear from parents, from teachers, from students and from community members about this issue. Let's also hear from experts. Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, is Director of E.P. Bradley Hospital Research Laboratory and professor in Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University School of Medicine. She has something to offer to the conversation.

*Note:  Highlighting is ours, not in original text.

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