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Lack of Sleep Affecting Adolescent Learning? Coverage Tips for Early School Start Times

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“What’s keeping you up at night?”

Science journalist and author Lydia Denworth posed that question to a pair of experts on adolescent development during the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar.

“Sleep!,” speakers Adriana Galván of UCLA and Denise Pope of Stanford University both said at a panel. Adolescents, they agreed, don’t get enough of it.

The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily upended school schedules. Many teens could simply roll out of bed and log on for virtual instruction, allowing them to get more sleep. The question now is whether this natural experiment will precipitate a larger shift in school start times at middle and high schools, which often begin classes at 8 a.m. or earlier.

Some recent developments suggest change is afoot. A 2019 law in California will mandate later start times at the secondary level in fall 2022. And some local school systems have decided to start secondary schools later this coming fall.

Most adolescents need between eight and 10 hours of sleep every night for good physical and mental health, Pope said. She is the co-founder of Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, where Pope serves as a senior lecturer.

But roughly three in four U.S. high school students average less than eight hours sleep on school nights, the CDC reports.

The main reason adolescents fail to get the sleep they need? Their schools start too early, out of sync with adolescent biology, which shifts the internal clock that governs sleeping and waking later, starting at puberty, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This clock keeps most teenagers from falling asleep before 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m., and pushes them to sleep until 7 a.m. or later, noted Galván, the co-executive director of UCLA’s Center for the Developing Adolescent.

The high school day across the U.S. begins on average at 7:59 a.m., the CDC found. Commute times vary widely. In some communities, school buses start making their rounds at 5:45 a.m., requiring students to rise around 5 a.m.

It’s the Law! Start Schools Later.

When California schools open in fall 2022, high schools must start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle schools no earlier than 8 a.m., as required by California’s Start the Day Later law, passed in 2019.

California is the first and the only state to mandate later start times for its public middle and high schools, including charter schools, but legislators in some other states also are exploring this strategy.

New Jersey, for example, established a four-year pilot program to test later start times at five high schools, though no school is participating yet. (The measure was approved in 2019.)

Also, bills introduced this year in the Texas and Massachusetts legislatures would create task forces to study the potential effects of shifting school start times for students at different grade levels.

A national nonprofit group that advocates for healthy start times, Start School Later, offers a roundup of current legislation and other resources for reporters on its website.

Reporters also will find useful background information on the science supporting later secondary school start times and legislation across the U.S. in reports prepared for legislators in California and Pennsylvania.

School Districts in 46 States Have Adopted Later Start Times

Start School Later reports that schools in 46 states have delayed start times to boost adolescent sleep or plan to do so in the next school year.

The Newton, Massachusetts School District, for example, announced plans in May to start classes at its two high schools at 9 a.m. this fall. Before the pandemic, one Newton high school started at 7:40 a.m., and the other at 7:50 a.m.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Newton’s high school day ran from 9:15 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. More than 4,000 students attend the two Newton high schools.

In the Salt Lake City School District, three traditional high schools will delay their opening times by an hour in fall 2021, starting classes at 8:45 a.m. Most of the state’s other high schools start before 8 a.m.

Why Adolescents Need Plenty of Sleep

Sleep is fundamental to next-day learning and the establishment of good emotional regulation and social relationships, said Galván, who is also a professor of psychology at UCLA.

Hundreds of studies show students who sleep eight hours or more on school nights earn higher grades, report better moods and higher self-esteem, think less often about suicide, and are healthier overall.

In April 2021, the journal Sleep published findings from a study the researchers said is the first large scale, longitudinal, and representative study to examine the impact of simultaneously changing school start times across primary and secondary schools.

The researchers assessed 28,000 elementary, middle, and high school students whose classes started 40 to 70 minutes later, beginning in fall 2017. Using student surveys administered in school and parent/proxy surveys administered online, they found middle school and high school students slept longer and felt more alert the first year and continued to do so two years later.

Pandemic Boosted Sleep in Some Students, Disrupted It in Others

Challenge Success partnered with NBC News to conduct a study of student well-being and engagement during the pandemic, reporting their findings in Kids Under Pressure.

The researchers surveyed 75,000 high school students from 86 campuses across the nation between fall 2018 and fall 2020. They asked 10,000 students in fall 2020 if and how their experiences had changed during the pandemic.

These students cited lack of sleep as a major source of stress before and during the pandemic. In fall 2020, students reported an average of only 6.7 hours of sleep on school nights. About 43% of the students said they slept less than they did before the pandemic while 23% said they slept longer.

An April editorial on student sleep during the pandemic in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine noted that while virtual learning may benefit sleep, it also may produce negative effects from reduced physical activity and exercise, lower sunlight exposure, social isolation, and increased stress and anxiety. It’s more critical now than ever, Kim Yuen, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues said, for families to maintain household routines and avoid watching too much news coverage about the pandemic.

Decades of Scientific Studies Support Later Start Times

After reviewing an extensive body of published research findings on adolescent sleep, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement in 2014 urging the nation’s middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

AAP cited “insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”

“The evidence,” AAP said, “strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e., before 8:30 a.m.) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption” in adolescents.

The National  PTA, National Association of School Nurses, and other health and education organizations have issued statements supporting 8:30 a.m. or later start times. Only one in five U.S. middle and high schools now start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

What About Inconveniences and Costs?

Despite scientific evidence, practical considerations often prove significant hurdles to changing school start times. Some parents voice concerns about difficulty finding alternative before- and after-school care for younger children when older ones aren’t available to help. Coaches worry about disruptions to athletic schedules. School district leaders fear they may need to purchase additional school buses and hire more drivers to handle start time changes.

“I see a lot of uncritical reporting on the severity of perceived difficulties,” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, the executive director of Start School Later.

“Many so-called challenges are speculations and often are grossly exaggerated,” she said, “but they are politically powerful. Now that we have outcomes data from schools that have delayed start times, this data should be cited.

“Changing start times is not ‘too’ expensive,” she added. “It’s a matter of priorities. When communities focus on the health and well-being of adolescents, they find a way to adopt healthier school start times.”

A RAND Corporation study from 2017, Later School Start Times in the US: An Economic Analysis, found the benefits of later start times far offset the immediate costs.

A nationwide move to a 8:30 a.m. start time could contribute $83 billion to the U.S. economy within a decade, RAND researchers found, as more adolescents would stay in school, graduate from high school and college, and earn more money over their lifetimes. Additionally, fewer would die or require costly health care after car crashes.

What Will Happen This Coming Fall?

With the pandemic waning and most of the nation’s schools planning to return to in-person teaching in the fall, “Let’s not go back to the old normal,” Pope said during the EWA panel.

“The old normal wasn’t healthy,” she noted. Many students experienced mental health problems, stress, and sleep deprivation before the pandemic began.

Galván agreed on the need to shift school start times later. It’s not that adolescents go to bed later only because they’re up doing homework, talking on the phone, or using social media, she said. While such factors play a role, adolescents’ circadian rhythms remain the key determinant of bedtimes.

“Everybody appreciates how important sleep is in the first years of life,” she said. “Adolescents also need good sleep to benefit their next-day learning and performance.

“Some already are at a disadvantage, often because of a lack of adequate resources at school or home,” she said. Insufficient sleep heightens these disparities. A later start, she suggested, could help address educational inequities.

Adolescent Sleep Story Ideas for Reporters

  • Low-income families often live in areas with high levels of noise, bright streetlights, and crowded living conditions, all factors that boost their risk for poor sleep. The pandemic exposed many disparities in access to education that affect sleep. How do sleep disparities affect students in your community?
  • The College Board still requires students taking SAT exams to show up by 7:45 a.m. Proctors lock exam room doors at 8 a.m. Why aren’t SATs held at a time when students are more likely to be well-rested?
  • Who is driving decisions in your community about school start times and whether to change them? What role do athletic directors, coaches, parents, and teachers play? Are educators and the community aware of the overwhelming research pointing to benefits from a later start? What are the true financial costs to districts of making the switch, and what are the larger economic benefits of doing so?
  • Daylight Saving Time (DST), in effect from March to November in most of the U.S., pushes adolescents to stay awake even later than usual, leading to additional sleep loss. DST also cancels advantages of starting school later. An 8:30 a.m. start time in DST is like a 7:30 a.m. start in Standard Time (ST). The American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued a position statement last year urging the U.S. to adopt ST nationally, year-round. The National PTA and Start School Later are among 19 medical and health organizations endorsing this recommendation. Twenty-eight states currently have open legislation to abolish DST or extend it year-round. What’s happening in your state and how would it affect students and school start time policy?

Organizations That Can Answer Your Questions

See the “Related Links” column at the top right of this page to find organizations to speak to for your reporting.

These organizations include the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, which provides evaluation services for educational programs, policies, and initiatives. CAREI has been assessing the impact of delaying school start times since 1996 when Edina (MN) High School became the first school in the U.S. to take this step.
Lynne Lamberg is a freelance medical writer/editor, focusing on sleep, mental health, adolescents and school start times. She is a contributor to Psychiatric News and Book Editor of the National Association of Science Writers. Follow her on Twitter @LynneLamberg.