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Should Teens Sleep In? New Choices in School Starting Times

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For many adults, sleep is treated more as a luxury than a necessity. Having to negotiate between homework, part-time jobs, sports and extracurricular activities, and household chores gets many K-12 students into this same lifestyle. With all of these responsibilities to manage, some young people simply do not have sufficient time for sleep.

One way that some schools respond to this problem of student sleep deficits is by starting later in the day. The purpose of this article is to review research on sleep patterns and discuss the reasons researchers, parents, educators, and students choose to support or oppose later school starting times. Because teenagers' sleep needs differ greatly from those of younger children and adults, much of the research focuses on adolescent sleep needs and patterns. However, the insights offered may be of interest to families with children of all ages. This article concludes with tips from sleep researchers regarding things that parents and teenagers can do to improve the quality and quantity of adolescent sleep.

Support for Later School Starting Times

Many researchers contend that high schools should start later because most of the current school schedules interfere with teenage sleep patterns. Unlike those of adults, the sleep cycles of adolescents are relatively fixed and extremely difficult to change. In 1976, researchers at Stanford University began conducting a study that tested the ability of teenagers to adjust to earlier times. Although the students had to rise earlier, they could not get to sleep any earlier the night before. As a result, some students actually developed narcoleptic-like symptoms that made it very difficult for them to stay awake in school [2].

In order to avoid this problem, a teenager's brain typically needs to sleep from 11:00 pm to 8:00 am ([1; 2; 5; 6]). However, most high schools require students to be in class as early as 7:15 or 7:30 am. As a result, many adolescents simply do not have the opportunity to get enough rest. Advocates of moving the starting time of high schools to a later time say that doing so would give students adequate time to get the sleep they really need in order to do their best.

In addition to improving teen sleep habits, supporters of later starting times contend that the new starting times also lead to other positive outcomes. Beginning with the 1997-1998 school year, Minneapolis Public Schools became the first major school district to change its starting times in order to meet adolescent sleep needs. As a result, the district's high school now begins at 8:40 am instead of 7:15 am, and the middle schools begin at 9:40 am instead of 7:40 am, while the elementary schools have either remained at 9:40 or have switched to an earlier start time (7:40 or 8:40 am). According to research conducted by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), the later starting time is having a positive impact on teen sleep. Since these schedule changes were made, Minneapolis high school students now get more hours of sleep than students in other districts who start school an hour earlier. Attendance rates at the high school level have also improved [7]. Teachers have reported seeing a variety of improvements in student conduct, including fewer students sleeping at their desks, fewer incidents of misbehavior, and more students who were generally alert in class. Furthermore, students attending the schools with later starting times found it easier to stay awake during school and while completing homework than did those students attending schools with earlier starting times ([3; 6]).

Some researchers have suggested that later starting times may also lead to improvements in academic performance. Students who are required to start school by 7:15 or 7:30 am are more likely to have memory difficulties, problems paying attention, and slow reaction times, and to show signs of depression than are students who attend schools with later starting times [2]. Students in Minneapolis reported that both their grades and their moods improved when the schedule changed. At the same time, parents reported that their children were easier to talk to and live with as a result of the later starting time [3].

Challenges Associated with Changing School Starting Time

In spite of the research, later school starting times do not always have a positive impact. Some educators, parents, and children are hesitant to support changes to the school schedule for some of the following reasons:

It may cause transportation problems for high school students. When the Minneapolis Public Schools decided to start its high schools later, transportation needs forced them to also change the starting time of their elementary and middle schools. This change allowed them to continue to use the same buses to transport all students. But as a result, high school students were no longer the first be picked up [3], and they often arrived late to school [1]. Many teachers in the district concluded that late buses caused as much tardiness as the earlier starting time had in past years [3].

It may cause transportation problems for elementary and middle school students. Teachers in Minneapolis elementary schools with a starting time of 7:40 am reported that the new schedule often meant that as many as 25% of the students had not arrived by the time school started. At the same time, the earlier schedule also made it difficult to schedule field trips because buses needed to be available to transport older students later in the day [3].

It may compromise the after-school safety of young children. Starting elementary schools earlier in the day means giving young children more time out of school in the afternoons, time that in some cases is unsupervised. With high school students staying at school later in the day, many families who utilize older siblings and other teenagers as babysitters also lose a valuable child care resource. Parents may be forced to seek after-school child care, which is not readily available or affordable for all families [8].

It may negatively influence athletics and extracurricular activities. Some activities are forced to shorten practice time because of the longer school day. In some cases, practices have simply been rescheduled to take place before school, thus nullifying the reason for changing the schedule in the first place. In the case of Minneapolis, students involved in athletics and other activities are dismissed from class early, making it difficult for teachers to cover subject matter topics. The extended school day also makes it hard for students to find time to make up the class work they miss to participate in other activities. As a result, teachers in Minneapolis noted that fewer students were involved in extracurricular activities after the new starting time took effect [3].

It may have a negative impact on part-time employment. Some critics of later starting times fear that employers will be less willing to hire students because later starting times will leave less time in the day for work. For some students, later starting times lead to a decrease in or loss of spending money. For others, later starting times may actually inhibit their ability to help bring needed income into the family [8].

It may clash with local community culture. In agricultural and other communities where early rising is the norm, letting students sleep later is sometimes seen as encouraging laziness. Some school districts find that the later schedule makes it difficult to provide school activities that take place in the community or require community support. In addition, some parents and students believe that the later starting times place an even greater demand on their time during adolescence, a time when many students feel that they need to overextend themselves in order to become successful adults [8].

Conclusion

Clearly, changes in school starting times have an impact on students' time at home as well as their time in school. Whether students attend a school that has a traditional schedule or a later starting time, here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation [4] for teens and parents to make it easier for students to get the most out of any schedule:

For Teens

1. Learn how much sleep you need to function at your best, and do your best to get it every night.
2. Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake-time schedule even on the weekends and other days when school is out. Try not to alter your schedule for more than two nights in a row. Avoid all-night study sessions.
3. Light sends a signal to your brain that it is time to be awake. Therefore, spend as much time in bright light in the morning as possible, but be sure to avoid bright light as it gets closer to bedtime.
4. Determine which time of the day is best for you to participate in reading and lecture classes. Try to schedule your classes so that the more interactive or stimulating courses will take place during the time when you are more likely to feel sleepy and in need of something to boost your energy.
5. Avoid coffee, cola, and other stimulants (including nicotine and alcohol) after lunch. They may make it difficult for you to go to sleep on time.
6. Try to relax before going to bed. Avoid doing heavy reading (although light reading may be helpful), studying, and playing computer games at least one hour prior to bedtime. Also, avoid falling asleep in front of the television, since the flickering light may make it difficult to get restful sleep.

For Parents

1. Look for signs of sleep deprivation and sleepiness in children. Warning signs include the following:
* having difficulty waking in the morning
* being irritable late in the day
* falling asleep quickly and easily during quiet times
* sleeping for a long time on the weekends
2. Establish and enforce age-appropriate sleep schedules for children of all ages. Be consistent!
3. Determine how part-time jobs, athletics, and other extracurricular activities affect your children's sleep patterns. Help children adjust sleep activities if necessary.
4 . Restrict the use of the television, stereo, computer, and telephone close to bedtime to ensure that children have an environment conducive to healthy sleep.
5. Encourage children to keep a sleep diary for one or two weeks. These diaries make it easier to determine what factors contribute to poor sleep habits.
6. Adjust sleep schedules several days or weeks before school starts to help ensure that children make smooth transitions.
7. Be a good role model by practicing good sleep habits yourself.
8. Encourage your school and school district to include sleep educationľ helping students understand their unique sleep patterns and ways to improve sleepľ in the curriculum and to consider the sleep needs of children in making changes to the school environment.
9. Be aware of the ways a child's physical development can change sleep needs and patterns.
10. Consult an expert if children exhibit excessive daytime sleepiness, which may be a sign of narcolepsy, sleep apnea, periodic limb movement disorder, or other sleep disorders. Although they are serious, these disorders are treatable.

For More Information

Bower, Bruce. (2000). Grade-schoolers grow into sleep loss. Science News, 157(21), 324.

Graham, Mary G. (Ed.). (2000). Sleep needs, patterns and difficulties of adolescents: Summary of a workshop. Washington, DC: National Academy. Available: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9941.html (ERIC Document No. ED446816)

Hollaway, John H. (1999). Giving our students the time of day. Educational Leadership, 57(1), 87-88.

National Sleep Foundation. (2001). It's time to get your child's sleep schedule back on track for the new school year, says the National Sleep Foundation [Online]. Available: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/PressArchives/backontrack.html

National Sleep Foundation. (2001). What do children mean for your good night's sleep? [Online]. Available: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/whatsnew/familysleep.html

Sousa, David A. (1998). Brain research can help principals reform secondary schools. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 21-28. (ERIC Journal No. EJ563912)

Wahlstrom, Kyla L. (1999). The prickly politics of school starting times. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 344-347. (ERIC Journal No. EJ579409)

Wahlstrom, Kyla L.; Wrobel, Gordon D.; & Kubow, Patricia K. (1998). School start time study. Available: http://education.umn.edu/carei/Programs/start_time/default.html

Wallace, Carol M. (1996). One to one. Parents, 71, 143.

Sources

[1] Black, Susan. (2000). A wake-up call on high-school starting times. Education Digest, 66(4), 33-38.

[2] Carskadon, Mary A. (1999). When worlds collide: Adolescent need for sleep versus societal demands. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 348-353. (ERIC Journal No. EJ579410)

[3] Kubow, Patricia K; Wahlstrom, Kyla L.; & Bemis, Amy E. (1999). Starting time and school life: Reflections from educators and students. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 366-371. (ERIC Journal No. EJ579413)

[4] National Sleep Foundation. (2000). Adolescent sleep needs and patterns: Research report and resource guide. Available: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/publications/teensleep.html

[5] Wahlstrom, Kyla L. (2000). School start time and teen sleep. High School Magazine, 7(9), 40-41. (ERIC Journal No. EJ606494)

[6] Wahlstrom, Kyla L. (2000). Sleep research warns: Don't start high school without the kids! Education Digest, 66(1), 15-16.

[7] Wahlstrom, Kyla L.; Davison, Mark L.; Choi, Jiyoung; & Ross, Jesse N. (2001). School start time study: Executive summary. Available: http://education.umn.edu/carei/Programs/start_time/2001exec_sum.html

[8] Wrobel, Gordon D. (1999). The impact of school starting time on family life. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 360-364. (ERIC Journal No. EJ579412 )
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