Most teenagers equate their high school years with constant exhaustion. This correlation makes sense—teenagers’ intense homework and extracurricular schedule, combined with an 8 a.m. (or earlier) school start time hardly ever results in eight hours of sleep. What if teens could actually be rested when they go to school in the morning?
Pushing Back High School Start Times
In the last two years, schools in California, Oklahoma, Georgia, and New York have pushed back the start time of high school. More cities and towns are following suit, just as new evidence is coming out, citing the benefits of a later start time. Researchers at the University of Minnesota reported that in their study of eight high schools in three states, they found major positive changes in students when the schools delayed start times. The researchers measured benefits in students’ mental health, car crash rates, attendance, grades, and standardized test scores. It is also proved that teenagers who sleep eight to nine hours a night are less likely to make risky decisions, be tardy, get in fights or sustain athletic injuries.
Biologically speaking, all teenagers have the natural tendency to go to bed later. During puberty, teens don’t release melatonin, a sleep hormone, until about 11 p.m. Melatonin can be hindered further from electronic devices (88% of students in the Minnesota study kept their cellphones in their bedrooms). The lead author of the study, Kyla Wahlstrom, confirms, saying, “It’s biological—the mental health outcomes were identical from inner-city kids and affluent kids.”
Out of 9,000 student participants in the study, only one third were able to get eight hours or more of sleep with a school start time of 7:30 a.m. When those same students started school at 8:35 in the morning, nearly 60 percent reported getting eight hours of sleep a night. National test scores also rose in some areas.
The more sleep a teenager gets, the more information they are able to absorb. Furthermore, without enough sleep, researcher Jessica Payne adds, “Teenagers are losing the ability not only to solidify information but to transform and restructure it, extracting inferences and insights into problems.”
Many parents and some students resist the idea of pushing back school start time—it would make transportation difficult, sports games later, and would force students to stay up later doing homework. Yet, Dr. Judith Owens, a sleep expert at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, claims, “It’s still a badge of honor to get five hours of sleep. It supposedly means you’re working harder, and that’s a good thing. So there has to be a cultural shift around sleep.” Some parents, perhaps, undervalue the true difference sleep makes in teens.
High schools around the country are starting later—so far, positive changes in teenagers heavily outweigh the negative effects.
What do you think about this change?
Information adapted from New York Times article, "To Keep Teenagers Alert, Let Them Sleep In."