Across the country, concerns abound that students cannot learn optimally during their first hour class because they are so tired. Medical evidence now supports that students should start their classes at a later time. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), middle school and high school students should not start their classes until 8:30am, or even later.
“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, “School Start Times for Adolescents”. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”
Former Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) teacher Jeff Gaynor, who retired in June after a 38-year elementary and middle school classroom teaching career, agrees with AAP.
“Teachers report having difficulty engaging students during 1st hour classes. Scientifically, and empirically, a later high school start time would be beneficial for learning, and that should be our priority,” said Gaynor.
Numerous studies have reported that the average adolescent in the U.S. is severely sleep-deprived and chronically sleepy. For instance, a National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.
Ann Arbor Public Schools’ adjustments
Last year, AAPS changed their start time for some schools. The changes in the start time were from 7:40am at Pioneer and Huron High Schools, and at Skyline High School from 7:30am, all to the new time of 7:45am at the three main high schools. But AAPS had other reasons for the change besides recommendations of AAP and the plethora of medical studies.
Gaynor said other factors were involved with AAPS’ time changes. “AAPS has changed their start times recently in response to last minute and poorly thought out state laws. No one likes the nearly 9am start time for elementary students, and high schools start too early,” said Gaynor. “This year, with the annually required 1098 hours of instruction spread over five more school days, there have been minor adjustments. There has been no progress in changing the schedule in a significant way.”
Multiple reasons for lack of sleep
The AAP also stated that reasons for teens’ lack of sleep are complex, and include homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology that can keep them up late on weeknights. The AAP recommends that pediatricians counsel teens and parents about healthy sleep habits, including enforcing a media curfew. The AAP also advises healthcare professionals to inform parents, educators, athletic coaches and other stakeholders about the biological and environmental factors that contribute to insufficient sleep.
But the evidence also strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents. Nationally, an estimated 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8am; only 15 percent start at 8:30am or later. The median middle school start time is 8am, and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45am or earlier.
Napping, extending sleep on weekends, and caffeine consumption can temporarily counteract sleepiness, but they do not restore optimal alertness and are not a substitute for regular, sufficient sleep, according to the AAP.
Jeff Gaynor, taught at Ann Arbor Public Schools for 38 years.
No schedule will please everyone
Gaynor added there are multiple issues for a school system to consider with the change of start time, besides the medical information.
“However, there are many other factors involved. This has been an intractable issue for many reasons,” said Gaynor. “The logistics and expense of busing remain factors, since currently, to save money, buses pick up students in shifts, by grade level. A later high school schedule also affects after school activities. Part time jobs and volunteer activities will be impacted. For athletics, practices will run late and games against other teams will be hard to schedule. And in many families, older children are now looking after their younger siblings after school. We need to keep exploring options, and getting feedback from the community, but no schedule will please everybody.”