Later Start Times for Secondary Schools and Changing the Culture of Sleep

Later Start Times for Secondary Schools

New data suggests that adolescents in the U.S. are chronically sleep-deprived. Doctors recommend the average teenager get between 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights, but a recent study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that 87 percent of high school students were sleeping far less.

That’s a real concern for parents and caregivers, as sleep deprived teenagers run an increased risk of physical and mental health problems, car accidents, as well as declining academic performance. But with homework and school start times as early as 7:30 a.m. in some parts of the country, is it even possible for teens to get the sleep they need?

“No, it’s not possible,” said Dr. Cora Collette  Breuner, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and co-author of a new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement that recommends all middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later.

“With most high schools starting at or before 8 a.m., some as early as 6:50 a.m., teenagers would have to go to bed by 9-10 p.m. to get the amount of sleep they need,” said Breuner. “We know that teens aren’t naturally inclined to get to sleep before 11 p.m., and when you add in homework, extracurricular activities as well as the constant bombardment that technology and social media provides, a 9-10 p.m. bedtime becomes a practical impossibility.”

The evidence presented by the AAP strongly suggests that too early of a start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents. An estimated 40% of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15% start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20% of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.

“This is a public health issue, plain and simple,” said Breuner. “We’ve got a whole generation of adolescents that are going through this crucial stage in their growth and development chronically sleep-deprived.”

Changing the culture of sleep

While delayed start times for secondary schools will ease the burden sleep deprivation places on today’s teens, Dr. Maida Chen, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Seattle Children’s, believes that in order to fully address this problem we need to change the way sleep is perceived and discussed by the public.

“In our culture, we have an odd fascination with burning the candle at both ends,” said Chen. “Too often in the conversation about health, sleep is seen as something expendable, or off to the side. In actuality, getting enough sleep each night is just as important to a person’s development and wellbeing as receiving a properly balanced diet.”

There are things parents can do to emphasize the importance of sleep, Chen says, and this starts at home:

  • Have discussions with your kids about healthy sleep habits, including how many hours of sleep is needed, and try to adhere to a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Set a media curfew on all electronics for your household (parents too), and stick to it.
  • Avoid excessive caffeine consumption and sleeping in on the weekends, as these tactics may alleviate the short-term symptoms of sleep deprivation, but they only further disrupt natural sleep cycles in the long-term.

“The reality is that no one displays the best judgment on limited sleep, but teenagers are at the age where they are going to be testing all sorts of boundaries, and adding sleep deprivation into the mix can be dangerous,“ said Chen. “We know that children simply don’t recognize the feelings of being sleep deprived in the same way adults do, which is why it is imperative that they learn healthy sleep habits from their parents. If we make sleep a priority, our kids will too.”