What if high school started an hour later?
Dear Straight Talk: I read with interest about the mother who couldn't get her son to sleep before midnight. Sleep deprivation is the norm today. But combining sleep deprivation with teens leads to extra problems because teens are prone to angst, depression, acute crises — and rash decisions.
One in five suicides takes place the same day as an acute life crisis, and I believe sleep deprivation plays a role. It is biological fact that teens' circadian rhythms are hardwired to stay up later and sleep in later. It would be so much healthier if high school started at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. to accommodate this. — Marion, Toledo, Ohio
Taylor, 15, Santa Rosa: It would help tremendously! I would feel lucky to get eight or nine hours of sleep. Some teachers and parents agree that starting at 7:35 a.m. is too early. Driving to school in the morning, it is still dark. Plus, my younger siblings get sleep-deprived, too, because we carpool.
Colin, 18, Sacramento: I dream of a world where high school starts at 8:30-9:00 a.m. This is right up there with legalizing gay marriage and peace in the Middle East.
Nate, 17, Toledo, Ohio: After reflecting on this, I think the current system is fine. A later start time would mean after-school activities might not start until 5:00. This is too late, especially considering time needed for studying and homework. It would also give students an excuse to stay up later. The sleep problem wouldn't be solved, just moved to a different time slot.
Katelyn, 17, Huntington Beach: It might just give teens the excuse to stay up later. When my school has a "late start" day (an hour delay), half my peers are tardy because they stayed up too late.
Justin, 25, Redding: I understand the logic here, but I chose the early high school start time (7:15) over the later one (8:15) so I could get out early. I always got at least seven hours of sleep, because I am seriously not happy if I don't get enough sleep.
Sarah, 20, Santa Clara: Starting school later is a lovely idea but not a realistic solution. Driven students would take zero period to the next level, gaining more time to get ahead. Others would simply stay up later. Adults don't have the luxury of changing their schedules to suit personal preferences, and teens shouldn't, either.
Dear Marion: Thank you for writing. I am an avid supporter of later start times for middle and high school. The forces against it are misguided and, sadly, deeply ingrained. Evidently, even most of the panelists believe the "lazy teenager" myth and think the "early to rise" adage applies to their age group.
In reality, though, you are correct. Teens are biologically wired to stay up and rise later. There is almost a two-hour delay in the sleep/wake cycle between adolescence and middle childhood. Teens require 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep a night, but the vast majority are lucky to get seven because we push them to rise on adult schedules — or worse.
A growing number of schools are turning their clocks back with powerful positive results. A Rhode Island school delayed start times only 30 minutes, from 8:00 to 8:30. Students were in better moods, more alert, less tardy, more motivated to participate in classes and sports — and less depressed.
Students went to bed an average of 15 minutes earlier (the opposite of abuse) and slept an average of 45 minutes longer. Teachers and athletic coaches who were initially resistant became strong supporters. A report of this study is in the July 2010 "Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine."
Another study in 2008 of a Kentucky school that pushed start time back one hour reported a 17 percent reduction in teen car crashes. For other schools' experiences, see schoolstarttime.org.
In the high schools that are syncing their clocks with human biology and rolling their start times back to 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., the results are positive across the board. Teachers say it is like night and day. Students are averaging five or more extra hours of sleep per school week — and what a difference that extra hour per night makes. I wager that once there is long-term data on suicides in these districts, a reduction will be observed.
Another plus with letting teens follow their natural sleep pattern is that individuals prone to getting into trouble after school find fewer avenues for it because school isn't letting out at 3:30 p.m., when most adults are still at work. Instead, these teens can (and mostly do) sleep all morning, wake up feeling less grumpy, attend school more readily and, when they get out at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., their parents tend to be home.
Why teens need enough sleep (from Mary Carskadon, PhD, an expert on adolescent sleep):
• fewer depressed moods
• reduced tardiness
• reduced absenteeism
• better grades
• reduced car crashes
• reduced metabolic and nutritional deficits, including obesity
Lauren Forcella co-writes Straight Talk TNT with a panel of 85 teens and young adults. To ask a question or become a panelist, click StraightTalkTNT.com or write to P.O. Box 963, Fair Oaks, CA 95628.