school start time

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Sleepy Students: A Pediatrician’s Plea For Later School Start Times

(eltpics/Flickr via Compfight)

(eltpics/Flickr via Compfight)

By Dr. Marvin Wang, M.D.

Last August, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement regarding school start times, really a plea to all middle and high schools to start the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The statement emerged as a result of accumulating evidence showing that earlier school start times effectively restrict an adolescent’s ability to get regular healthful sleep.

The timing of the AAP’s statement came on the heels of another sentinel event in my family’s life. Just a month after its publication, my daughter started school. No big deal, except for the fact that she has never been to school before. Until this year, she was exclusively homeschooled here in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

My wife and I didn’t have any major agenda driving this decision, other than the fact that we knew we could do it (we work part-time) and it seemed like it would be more family fun. The many details of our homeschooling adventures are really for another time, though.

The reason I even bring up the topic is that as a homeschooler, my daughter was able to wake up when she wanted to (usually within reason). On a regular day, she was used to getting up at 8:30ish (despite sometimes our having to pry her out later).

After a whole lifetime of this, imagine the draconian lifestyle shift of being asked to get up at 6 a.m. every weekday! This is the routine that is better known to most people as “going to school.” Now, let’s be clear about a few things: 1) our daughter wanted this. She asked to take the exam for the Boston Public Schools, in hopes of going to Boston Latin School, where she watched many of her friends attend; 2) she knew the early mornings were part of the routine; and 3) BLS actually has a relatively benign start time of 7:45 a.m., compared to many of its counterparts in the district and the state.

So what’s all the fuss? It cannot be a novel idea to most adults that the typical school teenager is a surly blob on most weekday mornings. Should we be surprised to learn that we have been breeding generations of sleep-deprived adolescents? Should we, as educators, parents and “concerned citizens” be worried about this?

First, let’s look at what’s new since the AAP statement came out.

Indeed, the movement is picking up steam in some parts of the country, as whole districts have approved later start times. In Massachusetts, districts like Sharon, Easton, Duxbury and Nauset have done so.

And there are some new studies corroborating the AAP’s stance:

In looking at the neurobehavioral issues in teens, it turns out that just one night of sleep deprivation in an adolescent has marked worsening of sustained attention, reaction speed, cognitive processing speed and subjective sleepiness. When the sleep was restored, the teens were able to significantly improve all their cognitive abilities.

One study showed that sleep restricted teens (average of five hours/night) were more likely to be lower academic quartiles than those who slept more (average 6 ½ hours/night…which is still two hours less than optimal!). But looking at the results, one also finds that the perceived sleepiness among the sleep restricted group was at least twice that the sleep appropriate group. Continue reading