Pros & cons of school starting later for teens

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Early school start times seem to embrace the familiar adage "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." However, teen sleeping patterns challenge this sage instruction.

Biological changes that occur after puberty change the sleep/wake patterns of teens and increase the amount of time they need to sleep at the same time that school start times necessitate earlier wake times.

Issue with School Start Times

Beating the late bell may be contributing to a lack of sleep among teens. The National Sleep Foundation conducted a poll in which parents reported that their teenagers complained of either being tired during the day or of falling asleep in school. According to University of Minnesota researcher Kyla Wahlstrom, the evidence that high school students suffer from sleep deprivation and sleep lag syndrome, gleaned from 12 years of studies conducted by researchers such as Mary Carskadon of Brown University, affirms these parental observations. Wahlstrom contends that inadequate sleep has a negative impact on academic performance.

Sleep Facts

According to Carskadon, the biological clock, called circadian rhythms, appears to shift during puberty, meaning teens are less able to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Based on the National Sleep Foundation's estimate that teens need as much as 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night, teenagers experience a sleep deficit of at least two hours a night during the school week since most high schools start around 7:30 a.m. Carskadon explains that chronic sleep deprivation results in daytime sleepiness as well as mood and behaviour problems such as anxiety, irritability and depression. Wahlstrom reports that other symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as impaired memory, poor academic performance, a reduced ability to complete complex tasks and reduced time-on tasks, have been cited by colleagues.

Later School Start Time Initiatives

Later start times were implemented in selected school districts in three states, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Kentucky, between 1996 and 2004 with positive results. For example, in the 1997-1998 school year, the Minneapolis School District started school more than an hour later in seven comprehensive high schools. According to Wahlstrom, not only were students still getting an additional hour of sleep by 2002, they reported feeling less depressed and less sleepy during the day. Their attendance was measurably improved and their grades were slightly higher.

Pros of Later School Start Time

The positive impact on students is the most compelling reason to start schools later. In school districts where schools start later, students have been more alert, attended school more regularly, persisted longer and reported improved moods. Additionally, principles have reported that the students appear calmer in school social areas. Students in districts with later starting times also were involved in fewer car accidents.

Cons of Starting School Later

However, starting school later can be disruptive to other community activities such as after-school activities, including sports. Later times may also create conflicts with bus schedules and family transportation as well as work schedules for both parents and teachers.