Are teenagers just lazy and wanting to sleep in late to make up for their “awake at all hours of the night” habits? Or, is there scientific evidence that sleeping in is critical to learning and brain development?
What if I told you there was a way to reduce negative behavior in children, prevent mental illness and substance abuse, and lower rates of suicide in teenagers? What if this same lifestyle change could reduce accident rates in teenage drivers, improve SAT scores, and even increase school attendance?
Based on the title of this article, you probably already guessed that all of these factors have been directly related to sleep – and specifically the amount that children of all ages receive in the later morning hours. Research on the benefits of later start times for school has been making headlines recently, but many parents and teachers oppose this change.
Keep reading for the full story or scroll to the bottom for some tips on how to help your kids cope with early morning start time.
Why Do Schools Start When They Do?
A century ago, schools in the United States started at 9 am. The most probable reasons were to allow kids time to do morning chores like milking cows and feeding chickens as well as to provide ample time to walk the 20-mile trek, uphill both ways, in the snow (isn’t that how the saying goes). Fast forward to our present day, and the average start times have moved back by nearly an hour, in some cases almost two or three hours!
According to an article published by the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society:
Many factors determine school start times in each district, but the majority of the decisions are based on transportation, after school activities, and educators. Many districts share school buses for their elementary and high school students, necessitating an earlier start for upper grades. Starting the day earlier also allows more time for extracurricular activities and gives educators time to plan and prepare for the next day.
Average Start Times Nationwide
Baby boomers from the 1950 and 1960s probably remember starting school at around 8:30-9:00 am. Kids still rode school buses, participated in after school activities, and even averaged up to two more hours of rest than children currently get. But somehow the increased demands of today’s day and age means that everyone, including kids, have to start a little earlier just to fit it all in.
According to a 2015 report from the CDC, the average start time of public middle and high schools in the 2011-2012 school year was 8:03 am. More recent data shows that 80% of public high schools begin before 8:15 am and 10% even start before 7:30 am. 
Sources: “Wake Up Calls (Fast Facts)“, Start School Later
For kids who ride a school bus to arrive on time for a 7:30 am start, they would need to be at the bus stop by about 5:45 am. To have time to shower, eat breakfast, and walk to the bus stop, this could mean waking up before 5 am, something even many adults would find a nearly impossible task.
Nationwide, the earliest average start times are on the east coast and the latest start times are found in North Dakota, Iowa, and Alaska. Curious about start times in your state?
Check out this map with data from the CDC or see the list below of actual start times in each state using data from the 2011-2012 school year.
Sources: “You Won’t Believe How Early School Starts in Some States“, Washington Post; CDC2011-2012 Average Start Times by State for Middle and High Schools Combined
|District of Columbia
**No data available
Importance of Sleep for Kids and Teenagers
In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy recommending middle and high school start times should be no earlier than 8:30 am. According to this same report, middle schoolers should be averaging 9-12 hours of sleep a night while high schoolers need between 8-10 hours of uninterrupted rest. For a 5 am wake-up, that would mean teens have to be asleep by 9 pm just to get the minimum 8 hours.
The American Medical Association adopted a similar policy recommending middle and high schools delay start times to align with the later sleep-wake cycles of youth. William E. Kobler, a physician and AMA board member spoke out on the issue stating:
“Scientific evidence strongly suggests that allowing adolescents more time for sleep at the appropriate hours results in improvements in health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. We believe delaying school start times will help ensure middle and high school students get enough sleep, and that it will improve the overall mental and physical health of our nation’s young people.” 
The circadian rhythm of young children runs on an earlier schedule, which is why they often are up at 6 am, ready to start the day. During puberty, this biological rhythm shifts forward, a change that is found in teens regardless of culture or geography. Similarly, the “sleep hormone” melatonin rises later in adolescence, often peaking hours later than in adults.
While this circadian shift is temporary, it means that most teenagers are biologically wired to stay up late and sleep in longer than what most parents probably deem as an “acceptable hour.” Even if a teen leans towards being studious and responsible, they may still have trouble falling asleep earlier than 10 or 11 pm.
The reason early start times are especially detrimental to youth is that they deprive these young minds of REM sleep, a critical stage of sleep that occurs in greater amounts in the hours closer to when we wake. What appears to be just a couple of hours less of total sleep time could be a 60-90% loss of REM sleep, and the consequences may be more serious than you think.
The problem is that teenagers are getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, missing out on rest that is critical for health, brain development, and so much else. Missing out on NREM and REM sleep in the late morning hours makes it difficult to form new memories, remember things previously learned, and form emotionally rational thoughts – something very important during the teenage years.
In his New York Times best selling novel, “Why We Sleep,” author and sleep expert Matthew Walker, PhD states “Forced by the hand of early school start times, this state of chronic sleep deprivation is especially concerning considering that adolescence is the most susceptible phase of life for developing chronic mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and suicidality.”
Sources: “Teens Who Lack Sleep at Greater Risk for Depression, Suicide, Warns Mason Researcher“, George Mason University
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens after car accidents, and studies of adolescents have identified a link between sleep deprivation and an increase in suicidal thoughts, attempts and completion in the days after. Too little sleep has also been linked to aggression, bullying, and behavioral problems in children of all ages.
Not only is sleep crucial for learning and memory retention, but it also impacts hormones, blood sugar regulation, immune health, body weight, and even athletic performance. So many of the diseases that are becoming increasingly prevalent in young people today can be tied back to sleep. Science has now linked conditions like diabetes, obesity, ADHD, learning disabilities, anxiety, cancer and depression all back to insufficient sleep as one of the many influencing factors.
As a parent, one of the most surprising and alarming statistics is that most of us have no idea just how little sleep our kids are actually getting.
Find Out More: Importance of Sleep for Students Success
According to CDC data from the 2015 national, state, and large urban school district Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, 7 out of 10 highschoolers and 6 out of 10 middle schoolers are not getting enough sleep at night. Over the course of a week, this could equate to more than 12 hours of sleep debt!
Adding to the problem, many parents are unaware of the challenges teens face with sleep. One study of 318 adolescents aged 13-17 found that 66% met criteria for having a sleeping problem while only 14.3% of their parents identified any issue.
Benefits of a Shifted Schedule
If adolescents are biologically wired to operate on a later schedule, asking them to go to bed earlier won’t work. But should school start later? Does shifting the school schedule to a later start time have any real benefits for teens beyond a few minutes of extra sleep?
Those are the questions that prompted several studies and test cases in schools all over the country (and the world). The results showed multiple benefits extending beyond just some extra zzz’s. In some districts, just a half-hour change was enough to make a noticeable difference in some key areas.
In one of the most extensively documented multi-site studies of 9,000 teenagers from 8 public high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming, starting school at 8:30 am or later led to over 60% of students getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Students reported more sleep, less daytime sleepiness, fewer depression symptoms, and lower tardiness rates as well.
According to some research, later school start times may increase life expectancy in teens. The leading cause of death among teenagers is car accidents, which are often caused by a lack of sleep. In the same study above involving 9,000 students, shifting start times from 7:35 am to 8:55 am significantly reduced crashes by 70% in drivers aged 16-18 years of age.
A study involving 770,623 high school students in North Carolina found that later start times were associated with fewer suspensions, especially for disadvantaged students. Children from families with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have to take the bus to school and routinely obtain less sleep, placing them at a greater disadvantage.
Another study of over 12,000 teens found an 8-14% reduction in cigarette, marijuana, and alcohol use and a 9-11% decline in sexual activity when kids slept eight or more hours each night. According to a report from the Afterschool Alliance, criminal and risky behaviors such as violent activities, sex and recreational drug use occur between 3 and 6 PM, a time many adolescents go unsupervised when schools operate on an early schedule.
Better Test Scores
Data from over 3 years of research found that shifting to a start time of 8:35 am or later increased academic performance and grades in core subjects like math, English, science and social studies, as well as increased scores on state and national achievement tests.
A similar study found that there were too many teens “sleepless in Seattle” and worries about the impact on health and learning necessitated a change. The Seattle, WA school district moved secondary school start times forward by nearly an hour and noted an increase in the daily sleep duration of teens by 34 min, coupled with a 4.5% increase in median grades and improved attendance.
At a time of life when young minds are the most vulnerable and at the highest risk for mental health issues, even just a few extra minutes of restorative sleep could make all the difference between a lifetime of wellness or psychiatric illness. In Rhode Island, a study of 200 teens found that delaying school by just half an hour reduced depressive symptoms by 21%.
Multiple other studies have included depression as an outcome in their research on delayed start times and have also found a significant reduction in symptoms when adolescents are given the opportunity for more sleep.
Downsides of Later Starts
While research on the many benefits of later start times is convincing, studies have found that over half of parents and more than 60% of educators oppose this change, citing issues with transportation, extracurricular activities, time for homework, and the inability for older teens to babysit younger siblings after school.
Interference with Extracurriculars
When school starts and ends on a later schedule, all of the after school activities are also pushed forward into the evening. This could mean fewer daylight hours for sports practices and games, less family time for coaches and educators who also end up going home at later hours, and less time for after-school jobs.
While these may seem like valid concerns for students and teachers, many districts who have successfully shifted their start times have found that most of these obstacles are easily overcome by small changes like installing brighter lights on sports fields, changing game times, and working more hours on weekends as opposed to weeknights. In many cases, athletic performance improves with more sleep, making this a welcome change for athletes.
School districts carefully plan and operate the bus system to be economical and functional. This often means that lower and upper schools share buses with high school students being picked up first to accommodate the later schedules of elementary and middle schools. Having high schools start later could mean districts face the huge financial burden of having to expand their current transportation program, something many are simply unable to do.
Some counties have solved this dilemma by swapping start times for elementary and high schools. Children in elementary school have earlier circadian rhythms, allowing them to easily adapt to an early morning start. Flipping start times means districts can continue to use the same bus-sharing system without any additional costs.
Late Night Homework
For kids involved in after-school activities, a later start could mean that they aren’t arriving home until well into the evening. After dinner and time spent with the family, teens may be faced with starting homework as late as 9 or 10 pm. Many parents and educators worry that this wouldn’t allow students enough time to do their homework, with grades and academic performance suffering.
So far, the research has shown the exact opposite. Later start times have improved attendance, alertness, academic performance, and overall GPAs. Perhaps one explanation is that the biological clock of teens allows them to be naturally alert during the 8-11 pm hours, making this a perfect time for homework activities. Getting adequate sleep also allows for greater memory retention, so these students can work faster and more efficiently when well-rested.
Teachers and Families
When the bell rings at the end of the school day, students are dismissed but teachers often still have at least a couple of hours left before they can leave. Meeting, grading schoolwork, and planning are just some of the activities educators complete in the hours outside of teaching. Many oppose changing start times as this could mean less time with their families and longer hours in the day.
While this may be true for teachers who are coaches or in charge of extra-curricular activities, many others take advantage of the extra hours of sleep, perform tasks before school, and schedule meetings over lunch to leave at an acceptable time.
How to Help Kids Cope with Early Start Times
While change is happening nationwide, the majority of schools still start before 8:30 am and children of all ages are getting too little sleep as a result. Even young children who are naturally primed to wake up with the sun often miss out on critical rest in order to get to school on time. Thankfully, there are some small changes you can make to help your kids cope with early start times.
Choose the Right Bedtime
Most parents allow children to stay up too late because of their own late work schedules or a misconception about how much sleep their child actually needs. If you aren’t sure what bedtime is appropriate for your child, consult the chart below to determine the total hours your child needs, then count back from when they must wake up to be on time for school.
|Recommended sleep each day
Source: “How much sleep do I need?” – CDC
Minimize Electronics Before Bed
Exposure to television or blue light from electronic devices like smartphones and tablets has been linked to a delay in melatonin release. Many kids and teens are using these devices in the hours right before going to bed (or even during the night) and this could be negatively impacting sleep.
Get More Info: How Technology Impacts Your Sleep
Improve the Quality of Sleep
Sleep opportunity isn’t the same as sleep time. Even kids may struggle to fall and stay asleep, and many suffer from conditions like sleep apnea that could be interfering with the quality of their rest. Specialized mattress & pillows can make a significant difference for sleep. Also, keeping the bedroom quiet, dark, and cool can help. You may consider using a bedroom fan to help. However, parents with concerns about their child’s snoring, breathing, or ongoing issue with sleep should speak with their physician to rule out possible sleep disorders.
Read More: Benefits of Sleeping in a Cold Room
Avoid Caffeine and Sugar
Children and teens are among the millions of Americans who regularly consume caffeinated beverages like energy drinks, coffee, and soda. The American Heart Association states that children and teens should have no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day and just 8 oz (1 cup) of sugary beverages per week, but the average teenager consumes about 34 teaspoons of sugar daily. Caffeine and sugar can have serious effects in children and teens, resulting in blood sugar irregularities, mood fluctuations, and interrupted sleep.
Maintain a Bedtime Routine
One of the easiest ways to improve sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Having this type of consistency helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, signaling the body and brain that it is time for sleep. Encourage your child to maintain a consistent schedule for going to bed and waking every day – over time, this should help them to fall asleep faster and wake up feeling more rested.
In the United States, legislation regarding healthy school start times have been introduced in 19 states, and at least 5 of them have passed. On 03/25/2019, U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren introduced Bill HR 1861 – ZZZ’s to A’s Act at the national level, directing the U.S. Secretary of Education to conduct a study looking at the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance. It appears that the issue of school start times isn’t one that is going away anytime soon.
If you have concerns about your child’s school schedule, speak up and make a change. Talk to your local representatives or sign a petition that promotes legislation around school start times. While you may not be able to change your local school’s schedule overnight, you can use our tips to help your kids cope with those early morning days.
RN, RHN, Certified Health Coach
Raina Cordell is a Registered Nurse, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, and Certified Health Coach, but her true passion in life is helping others live well through her website, www.holfamily.com. Her holistic approach focuses on the whole person, honing the physical body and spiritual and emotional well-being.
Sources and References:
 Wake Up Calls (Fast Facts), Start School Later
 Keeping Kids Safe and Supported in the Hours After School, After School Alliance