Why Zzz's get degrees: The case for later school start times

Compiled by Nicole Shepard, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Fri, Aug. 29, 2014, 4:10 a.m. MDT

 Sleep deprivation has become so prevalent around the nation that many think an extra hour or two of sleep will improve grades.

Sleep deprivation has become so prevalent around the nation that many think an extra hour or two of sleep will improve grades.

(Getty Images)

As the summer days of waking up just before noon yield to pre-sunrise first period classes, so comes chronic sleep deprivation among American teens.

The median school start time is 8 a.m. across the country, but schools in a handful of states are shifting to a 7 a.m. start time. This move to an earlier school day was made to accommodate new curriculum, but sleep researchers are saying that this is the worst thing they could have done.

“The empirical evidence [of] the negative repercussions of chronic sleep loss on health, safety and performance in adolescents … has been steadily mounting for over [a] decade,” Judith Owens, a pediatrician, told The Atlantic's Jessica Lahey.

A study published this spring by Dr. Kayla Wahlstrom, which looked at over 9,000 students, found that schools that started later saw a jump in standardized test scores and improved grades across the board, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Additionally, those school districts saw a 65 to 70 percent drop in car accidents involving teens, reported The Atlantic.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, schools should not begin before 8:30 a.m., with an ideal start time of 10 a.m.

“The evidence is clearly mounting … and there is also solid compelling data supporting the fact that delaying school start times is a very important intervention that can mitigate some of the impact of sleep loss,” Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center, told Time.

Knowing that teens need an average of 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep is not new, but knowing why it’s so difficult for them to get proper sleep on a normal 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule was one of the focuses of the research.

The AAP researchers found that teens’ schedule of late to bed, late to rise has nothing to do with bad habits or rebellious tendencies and everything to do with brain chemistry.

“Teens stay up later not because they don’t want to go to sleep, but because they can’t,” Lahey reported. “Due to the delayed release of melatonin in the adolescent brain and a lack of ‘sleep drive’ in response to fatigue, teens do not feel sleepy until much later at night than young children or adults and have difficulty falling asleep, even when they are tired.”

According to Wahlstrom, a teen’s brain, already hormonally out of balance, does not properly create or respond to sleep hormones. The research showed that even in states of “exhaustion,” teens found it difficult to fall asleep before midnight.

If the average teenager isn’t going to sleep until after midnight and waking up between 6 and 7 a.m., that is only giving them six to seven hours of sleep, assuming they don’t wake up during the night.

“A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights,” The Washington Post reported.

Owens explained to NBC News that sleep deprivation works like monetary debt, the more sleep you miss the more sleep debt you acquire and one night of good sleep is not enough to make up for previous nights without sufficient sleep.

When teens miss out on two to three hours of sleep, by the end of one school week they’ve lost 10 to 15 hours of sleep that needs to be accounted for.

“These kids are essentially in a permanent state of jet lag,” Owens told NBC News.

In addition to the cognitive issues of sleep deprivation in teens, AAP researchers say that it can also lead to obesity later in life, increasing risks of heart disease and diabetes.

Owens asked in The Atlantic that if these problems can be addressed and rectified “with something as easy as started school later, why would we not do it?”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

1. slave
American Fork, UT,
Aug. 29, 2014

I have an idea. Let’s eliminate school all together. It seems that it does nothing but cause stress and above all inconvenience for the parents. I find it interesting that parents allow their children to play and run the neighborhood until after 10:00 pm on a school night and then wonder why their children are so tired and unmanageable in the morning. What’s even sadder is that instead of the American Academy of Pediatrics sternly telling parents to send their children to bed they are feeding the pandemic of blaming the system for the failure of the school system. It is easy to see why this country isn’t even in the top 20 for quality education any longer.

2. Doklove
Quincy, IL,
Aug. 29, 2014

Hog Warsh! Now I agree that kids (and adults) need to get a full nights sleep. I also agree that kids (and adults) will perform better in school, on the road, at work, everywhere with good sleep habits. But to state that kids CAN'T get to sleep before 11 or 12 at night because of brain chemistry???? There is science at it's finest.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, with extended power outages, bedtimes became significantly earlier. No lights, no facebook, no texting, no late evening activities. After the sun went down, many people sat in the dark with nothing to do and so what did they do? They went to bed. And slept fine. And got up early. Brain chemistry was working fine. Bed times can be adjusted.

Now I'm not advocating that technology is bad and needs to be eliminated, but it is a choice. Now, not starting school until 8 or 8:30 seems reasonable and I'm sure early morning seminary teachers and students would appreciate it. But if teens "can't" get to bed before 11 or 12, then maybe their choices need to be adjusted- or they will just be tired.

3. Ry Guy
Aug. 29, 2014

I can relate. I could never go to sleep before 1 as a teen.....no matter how hard I tried. I think I slept thru at least 1 or 2 classes every day.

4. benbookworm
Fresno, CA,
Aug. 29, 2014

Now, here's a question for people who believe in Mark Twain's quote "There are three types of falsehoods: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Are these studies based on correlation, or do they use experiments to establish causation? Just remember: correlation does not equal causation. There could be a hidden variable creating both at the same time.

5. Coach P
Provo, UT,
Aug. 29, 2014

I will go with some anecdotal observation from my 25 years in the business. School needs to start later, it would be one of the best things we could actually do to help our students do better.