As a sleep researcher and the mother of two teenage boys, I applaud California for recently becoming the first state in the nation to require later school start times at most public high schools and middle schools. This will go a long way to solving an ignored public health crisis: that millions of American school students are suffering from sleep deprivation.
The importance of healthy school start times is a widely accepted fact in the field of sleep research.
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The new California law instructs public middle schools to begin studies at 8 a.m. or later and high schools to start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. (Some rural school districts throughout the state are exempt.) This delay in school start times is supported by previously published recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and more than 120 public health, medical, safety and sleep experts, including myself, who signed a letter urging the bill to become law.
Most schools follow CDC guidelines and AAP recommendations on everything from vaccination schedules to hand washing but continue to dismiss instructions from the nation’s leading public health and scientific organizations when it comes to healthy school start times. The overwhelming majority of school districts in America are ignoring leading scientific guidelines on sleep.
Why do we struggle to follow clear sleep guidelines that promote health in our children? Teen sleep deprivation is a problem of epidemic proportion. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 Campaign found that only 30% of students in grades 9 through 12 reported getting sufficient sleep, defined as eight or more hours of sleep on an average school night. A specific objective coming out of the Healthy People 2020 Campaign was to increase the proportion of Americans students receiving sufficient sleep each night.
Parents should know that biology and age have a huge role in sleep patterns. need about eight to 10 hours of sleep to function well, yet with the onset of puberty comes a delay in circadian – or sleep/wake – rhythm. Most teenagers are unable to fall asleep before 10:30 or 11 p.m. at night, even if they put their phones away (which, of course, they should and is also a CDC and AAP recommendation). If they have to get up at 5 a.m. for school, that’s equivalent to an adult waking up at 3 a.m. every single day.
Research shows that teenagers who have to wake up to go to school in the pre-dawn hours have worse grades and lower standardized test scores. Teens who suffer from sleep deprivation are more likely also to suffer from , , behaviors, traffic accidents, and suicides. When teenagers don’t get enough sleep, they have difficulty with academic performance, physical and mental health, mood and safety.
Middle and high schools that start at 8:30 a.m. or later are perfectly poised to form a school-home partnership to improve the health and wellbeing of their students. Parents can ensure their children turn off devices, go to bed at a developmentally appropriate time, and follow healthy sleep practices. In turn, schools can ensure their days start late enough to allow youth to sleep sufficiently at night and also focus on timing and length of extracurricular participation. Starting school at 8:30 a.m. doesn’t benefit youth who have 5:30 a.m. practices and/or excessive volumes of homework at night. With a healthy school-home partnership, teens can go to bed at 10:30 p.m., sleep until 7:00 a.m., and arrive at school refreshed and ready to learn.
In my own home, I try to practice what I preach. Devices are turned off before bed and left in the kitchen to charge. Bedtimes are consistent and as early as possible (recognizing that the biology of teens won’t allow them to fall asleep at the ideal time of 8:45 p.m.). My challenge is the serious limit placed on how early my children must awaken (well before 6:00 a.m.) to arrive at the bus stop for their 7:00 a.m. school. And I recognize that we are fortunate; some students in our district must be at the bus stop before 6:00 a.m. I remain hopeful we will see change in our local areas, and urge our local lawmakers to follow California’s lead, that will allow all of our children to obtain the sleep they need to function at their best—physically, mentally, and academically.
Kudos to California for taking the lead in instituting a phased-in approach to a healthy school start time. The importance of healthy school start times and the maintenance of sleep hygiene in our children is a widely accepted fact by all of my colleagues in the field of sleep research. Making this change would have a positive benefit on the health of our nation’s children.