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Later School Start Times: Lazy or Legit?

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Later School Start Times: Lazy or Legit?

Mar 16, 2015

Most teenagers don’t get enough sleep as it is, and starting school before 8 a.m. can hurt their natural sleep cycles. Research shows they do better in school if they have later start times. Pediatrician Dr. Cindy Gellner talks about why this is and how you can get involved to delay the start time of your teenager’s school day so she can be more alert in class.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Gellner: You may have heard the current debate about delaying start times of middle and high schools to combat teen sleep deprivation. I am Dr. Cindy Gellner, and that's what we are talking about today on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from the University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for happier and healthier life. You are listening to The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: I hear a lot of times about teens and middle schoolers saying, "I really don't want to get up to go to school in the morning," or they are getting late to school and then they are getting notices about being in truancy because they are tardy all the time. This is not entirely their fault. Studies show that adolescents who don't get enough sleep often suffer from physical and mental health problems and a decline in academic performance.

They don't really mean to be so tired, but their body just isn't ready to wake up at such an early time. Getting enough sleep is hard for a teen whose natural sleep cycle makes it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. and who face a first period class at 7:30 or earlier the next day. In a new policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools delay the start of the classes till 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules with the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents whose sleep cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.

Adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight and suffering depression as well. They are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents because they are well rested while driving, and they have better grades, higher standardized test scores, and a better overall quality of life.

Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep their need to grow and learn. Many studies have shown that the average teen in the United States is chronically sleep deprived. The National Sleep Foundation found that almost 60% of 6th through 8th graders and almost 90% of high school students in the United States for getting less than the recommended eight and a half to nine and a half hours of sleep on school nights.

The reasons teens lack sleep are complex. There's homework. There's extracurricular activities. Some kids when they are older, they have after-school jobs, and then don't forget the use of technology. Kids will stay up and play on their smartphones or their tablets or the computer way past their bedtime. Pediatricians should recommend to parents and teens that they have healthy sleep habits, including enforcing a media curfew as to when to turn all those electronics off.

Evidence strongly suggests that a too early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation. About 40% of high schools in the United States currently have a start time before 8:00 in the morning. Only 15% start at 8:30 or later. And middle schools mostly start around 8:00 in the morning, and more than 20% of middle schools in the United States start at 7:45 or even earlier. Napping and extending sleep on the weekends and using caffeine can temporarily counteract the sleepiness, but they do not restore the body's optimal alertness, and they are not a substitute for good sleep.

As pediatricians, we in the American Academy of Pediatrics have gotten involved with this effort. By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the American Academy of Pediatrics is promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports schools' start times be delayed as an important public health measure.

We also are trying to provide support and encouragement to the school districts around the country who are thinking about making that change. As parents, you too can talk to your schools and get them to understand what your teen needs in terms of start times and help your child get the best education they can.

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