A new study shows that starting the school day just one hour later would help teens not just get more sleep, but perform better academically and be healthier overall.
Most high schools in the US start before 8:30am — if not as early as 7am — meaning that five days a week, teens are disrupted from their natural sleep patterns, leaving them perpetually exhausted. Kids who get too little sleep have a greater chance of developing anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. For years, scientists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended a later start.
“Sleep is essential for optimal health and development, academic achievement, and social and emotional functioning,” write the researchers in this recent study of 28,000 kids. “Yet insufficient sleep is common among children and adolescents.”
I couldn’t agree more with a later start for kids, and for parents.
Here at my house it’s a 5:45am start Monday through Friday. My daughter sleeps until 6am, while I make breakfast. At 6am, I enter her room to be greeted by two feet, nearly as big as mine, poking out from under a duvet.
“Rise and shine!” I intone with false gaity, just as my own mother used to do.
The child groans, rolls over, or does nothing at all.
And who could blame her? It’s 6am!
Ten minutes later with the breakfast getting cold on the table, I’m back. I think I’ve documented this before. It goes like this: no movement, followed by lots of nagging and eventually the nuclear option (no phone use for the day!).
At some point, she rises (not so much shining) and dresses and comes downstairs. Eventually — after the usual aggravation and some occasional joy — we make it out the door and to the bus on time.
Then I walk the dog, clean the kitchen. Perhaps I do a little laundry. And then I start my day job, by which point all I want to do is climb back into bed. I can only imagine how my daughter feels in math class.
It didn’t used to be this way. 9am was the start a few generations ago, but then in the 1960s and ’70s, as suburbs grew, so did the need for more staggered bussing schedules. Transport needs dictated school schedules with high schoolers getting the earliest start. Extracurriculars like sport fit themselves around the school day.
When I was in high school, we used to have swimming practice before school. Of course swimming was always in winter, as if it wasn’t bad enough to jump into a cold pool at 7am, it had to be dark and freezing outside so our wet hair would icicle over.
The earlier start meant kids returning home well before the work day ended. Parents made it work with their jobs, or by using after-school programs.
In recent years, some US counties have changed school hours because of emerging evidence on sleep deprivation and kids. But these moves have sometimes provoked an outcry from parents who had worked hard to make their schedules work, only to find them suddenly upended.
Now Covid-19 has given many of us a taste of what it’s like to not rise at an ungodly hour each day. Indeed, sleeping later has been one of the few joys amid months of quarantining and home-schooling.
In the end, my point is this: there’s always going to be someone who is unhappy. And yes, schedules will have to be reworked. But on balance, I think it’s best to appreciate the increasing evidence on sleep and academic scores and kids’ health, and agree to give everyone a little more rest. I, for one, could use it.