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Science Says: Early School Starts are Unhealthy

When my alarm goes off in the morning, I fumble around in the pitch dark to turn it off and then lie very still so that I can listen for sounds in the house. A few small noises from down the hall let me know that my daughter is up and going. As my feet hit the floor, I exhale a small sigh of relief that she rousted herself out of bed without help.

I walk downstairs, wiping the sleep out of my eyes so that I can clearly admire the crescent moon that hangs low over the horizon. I look for the first glimpses of the sun, but don’t allow myself to pause too long. It’s another school day and we don’t have much time before my girl has to be out the door. The sun will rise, but not until after she is on the bus on her way to high school.

After the door closes behind her, I shake my head as I walk past the clock. I try not to get angry. I fail.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) examined a host of scientific research more than two years ago, it determined that we as a society were operating on a school day schedule that isn’t great for our kids’ health.  The AAP released a study finding that  tweens and teens are not getting sufficient sleep. It also issued a policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says, “Most American adolescents start school too early.” The CDC notes that “[s]tarting school later can help improve an adolescent’s health, academic performance and quality of life.” In support of later start times, the CDC notes that adolescents are more likely to be overweight, suffer from depression, perform poorly in school and engage in unhealthy risky behaviors if they do not get enough sleep.

Teen biology and circadian rhythm mean that simply saying “good to bed earlier” will not work. Puberty messes with kids in a number of ways, and that includes when they can sleep. Remember sleeping in late when you were a teen? Turns out you weren’t lazy, it was biology. The AAP says that teens have “natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.”

One would think that parents, educators, and all those worried about our kids getting the best education possible would collectively hop to and work to change it, right?

If you live in my community, you would be wrong.

If you live in Seattle, though, you would be correct.

Less than 20 percent of high schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later in 2012. While there are more schools making the change, it is an exception, not the rule. The majority of schools start earlier than recommended, and buses pick up children even earlier.

This year, Seattle Public Schools managed to act on the recommendations. The district adjusted the time that its 53,000+ students start their school day. The district pushed the start time for the city’s high schools and most middle schools back to 8:45 a.m.

“This is a great win for our students,” board Vice President Sharon Peaslee told the Seattle Times about the changes, which the teachers union supported. “We will unleash a torrent of public schools shifting to bell times that make sense for students.”

If only everyone was as convinced that the nation’s doctors are right about what’s best for our children (including teenagers). Yes, change is hard. And yes, this is different than how it was when we were kids. But it is a disservice to our teens to disregard an improved understanding of the teenage brain which we have thanks to advances in science and decades of research, and also the positive benefits seen in schools who have tried later start times.

The Boston Globe reports that the number of Ds and Fs fell by half when Nauset Regional High School changed its start time to 8:35 a.m. Unsurprisingly, tardiness rates dropped by 35 percent. Academics aside, later school start times could make our roads safer. When Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming shifted its start time to 8:55 a.m., the number of car crashes involving drivers ages 16-18 dropped by 70 percent, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Our children are in high school for a relatively short time, and it’s an amazing opportunity. Their developing brains and bodies are capable of learning in a way that they will not be in adulthood. (For more on that, check out books by Laurence Steinberg.) How great would it be if administrators, school boards, teachers, parents and communities worked to shift school start times to make the most of the learning opportunity? After all, nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children.

Author: Shannan Younger

Shannan lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. She’s a recovery attorney who now blogs at BetweenUsParents.com, ChicagoNow, and as part of the Chicago Parent Blogger Network. Her writing has appeared on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Scary Mommy, BonBon Break, Brain Child and In the Powder Room, and her essays have been included in two anthologies by The HerStories Project. She is also freelance writer for regional magazines. Shannan was in the 2013 cast of Listen to Your Mother, despite the fact that her daughter often fails to do so.

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