Three Reasons to Consider Later School Start Times
Research suggests more sleep for teens could yield significant health and academic benefits. To achieve these benefits, schools across the nation are experimenting with later start times for middle and high schools.
“I fell asleep on the bus and usually wasn’t really awake until after first period ended,” says Andrew Schatzman, whose school day in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County ("Fairfax") used to begin with a 6:30 a.m. pickup time. When district leaders moved the high school start time to 8:10 a.m., it made a big difference in his life. “He’s still a teenager, so nothing is easy, but now he’s ready to go,” says Andrew’s mom, Liz. “I’m awake enough to do what I have to do in first period,” adds Andrew.
Thanks to this change Andrew starts the school day rested and ready to learn, but millions of U.S. students do not share that experience.
Nearly half (46%) of the U.S. high schools that begin classes before 8 a.m. are filled with teenagers who have not received the 8+ hours of sleep that young people need. As adolescent brains develop, sleep patterns change. It’s a normal, natural occurring physiological milestone. Sleep researchers call it the development of an evening-type circadian phase preference. The rest of us call it becoming a night owl.
Regardless of the terminology, the result is the same: teenagers stay up late. They do not fall asleep sooner if school starts earlier. Instead, they get sleep-deprived.
Recent research, including research supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, makes a strong case for helping young people get more sleep by starting school later. That one change may contribute to healthier teenage years and help build a foundation for a lifetime of improved health outcomes.
Here are three important findings from the latest research:
1. Sleep Has a Huge Impact on Adolescent Health
Sleep patterns affect a sweeping range of physical and mental health conditions. Studies now show clear links between insufficient sleep and obesity, diabetes, depression, suicidal thoughts, and more. Experts are still working to determine exactly how sleep affects so many health issues, but it appears related to the production of hormones that regulate mood and satiety.
2. Later School Start Times Promote Academic Success
Many studies show that later schools starts are associated with better grades, higher test scores, and improved focus and self-regulation among middle and high school students. Improved self-regulation can also result in fewer disruptions in class. That’s especially important because discipline problems may lead to suspension, which is associated with a wide range of negative health and economic outcomes and is a major cause of educational inequity.
3. Later Start Times Save Lives—Literally
In the Mountain West, Northeast, and other parts of the United States, leaving for school by 7:00 a.m. in the winter means tired and inexperienced drivers on icy roads before dawn. It is a recipe for disaster that results in tragedy far too often. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among high school-aged teens, and drowsy-driving may be a factor in 10-20 percent of serious crashes. Student safety was a key reason the Teton County School Board ("Teton") in Wyoming voted to move Jackson Hole High School’s start time to 8:55 a.m. Over a two-year trial period, car accidents involving teens fell 70 percent.
Teton’s decision is more than smart road safety policy. It is a terrific example of building a Culture of Health.
Teton, Fairfax, and other school districts moving to later starts are putting health at the center of all policy decisions, even those outside a traditional definition of health and health care.
In the past, school start times may have been considered an “education issue” and completely unrelated to health. We know better now.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health vision emphasizes that everything is interrelated: health, education, economic development and more. This one example touches motor vehicle safety, equity, and academic success, which can lead to a lifetime of improved health outcomes. Congratulations to Fairfax, Teton, and the dozens of other school districts that have moved toward later starts.
To find out if later school start times could help build a Culture of Health in your community, contact your school superintendent or school board representative. Ask if they have considered moving middle school and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later, matching the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Parent Teacher Association, and many other health and education advocacy organizations. If the idea hasn’t been considered, perhaps your school board could discuss the option at their next meeting—and you can be there!
Visit www.StartSchoolLater.net for more research and information, including case studies profiling Fairfax County and other schools that have successfully transitioned to later start times.
about the authors
Tracy Costigan, PhD, is responsible for the Foundation's organizational learning and coordinating institutional knowledge in support of effective and responsive strategies and programs. Read her full bio.
C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, leads the Foundation's efforts to develop and disseminate science-based strategies for addressing the major behavioral causes of preventable death and chronic disease.