Wave that flag
Wave it wide and high
Done come and gone
My oh my
It’s the home stretch of summer vacation. With kids heading back to school in the next few weeks, now is a good time to think about getting them to bed a little earlier in the evenings and up a little earlier in the mornings. After all, children need to be awake in order to learn, and school starts very early. Too early, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement published last year (and covered here on The PediaBlog) regarding “School Start Times for Adolescents”:
The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students. Although a number of factors, including biological changes in sleep associated with puberty, lifestyle choices, and academic demands, negatively affect middle and high school students’ ability to obtain sufficient sleep, the evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (ie, before 8:30 AM) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population. Furthermore, a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.
Last year, the State University of New York (SUNY) advocated for later starting times after reviewing the science demonstrating the myriad of negative effects of sleep deprivation on teenage students, including:
- Academic complications — mostly from decreased attentiveness and decreased memory capacity.
- Greater risk-taking behaviors.
- Greater risk of depression.
- Poorer physical health — sleep insufficiency is associated with obesity and all its complications. Also, one study last year found that “[a]thletes who got less than eight hours of sleep were 1.7 times more likely to suffer an injury than those who got more than eight hours of sleep (Milewski et al., 2014).”
- Greater risk of injury from car accidents.
For biologic (mostly hormonal) reasons, teenagers experience a 2-hour sleep-wake “phase delay,” which means that they are biologically wired to go to sleep later and wake up later than preadolescents and adults.
But is it even possible to get school districts to ring that first bell after 8:30 a.m. — at least in high schools? A recent report from the CDC suggests it won’t be easy:
Among an estimated 39,700 public middle, high, and combined schools in the United States, the average start time was 8:03 a.m. Overall, only 17.7% of these public schools started school at 8:30 a.m. or later. The percentage of schools with 8:30 a.m. or later start times varied greatly by state, ranging from 0% in Hawaii, Mississippi, and Wyoming to more than three quarters of schools in Alaska (76.8%) and North Dakota (78.5%). A school system start time policy of 8:30 a.m. or later provides teenage students the opportunity to achieve the 8.5–9.5 hours of sleep recommended by AAP and the 8–10 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
In Pennsylvania, the average start time for public middle schools and high schools is 7:48 a.m. School districts that consider later start times will face the same arguments against doing so that we hear whenever this debate arises. Liz Szabo highlights some of these mostly valid arguments:
But many school officials have argued that starting class later would make it more difficult to schedule after-school sporting events, which often require teams to take buses to other parts of their districts.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association., who said that school districts have to consider the cost of school buses, as well as traffic and after-school activity schedules.
Allowing high schoolers to sleep in could mean sending elementary kids to school in the dark during the winter, as they would have to take the early schedule. That could pose a safety dangers to the youngest kids as they walk to school or wait at bus stops, Domenech said.
Starting high school later also would mean starting sports practices later and make it more difficult for teens to get to after-school jobs, Domenech said.
He notes that early school start times are nothing new.
“This has been going on forever, and kids have been graduating from school and going on to college,” Domenech said. “It certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt them all these years.”
That last statement, by the way, is NOT a valid argument for the status quo! It’s an exaggeration (“going on forever”) and is based on a logical fallacy (“kids have been graduating…”) which leads to a false conclusion (“doesn’t seem to have hurt them all these years”). It’s the same lazy and flawed argument we heard (and, unfortunately, continue to hear) when instituting policies meant to protect public health, like for seat belts, tobacco, bike helmets, immunizations, carbon pollution in air and water, and on and on. Maybe if we all had a little more sleep in middle school and high school, we’d all learn to think a little more critically.