Lois M. Collins: School start times are designed for everything but the kids we're trying to educate

By Lois M. Collins, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Tue, Aug. 26, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 The American Academy of Pediatrics says we're starting school too early for teenagers to thrive. It's a simple fix, it says, but one that policymakers seem reluctant to take for a lot of reasons, although early start times puts kids at risk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says we're starting school too early for teenagers to thrive. It's a simple fix, it says, but one that policymakers seem reluctant to take for a lot of reasons, although early start times puts kids at risk.


The teenager’s behavior had become vexing. It seemed she was always on the verge of a small explosion, frequently argumentative and sometimes overly emotional. Her mom described her as frequently frustrated and said her grades were slipping, which they’d never done before.

“I’m going to take her to a counselor,” her mom confided. “I honestly think she might be experiencing a mental illness.”

Thorough tests indicated my friend’s daughter was, in fact, sleep deprived. Between a homework overload, late-night text messages that periodically interrupted her sleep and an early morning school start, she was struggling. Getting her sleep back in balance would prove to be somewhat challenging.

Just in time for the start of a new school year, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released new recommendations regarding school start times, which any parent of a teenager can tell you are designed to meet every need but a teen’s need for sleep. Early start time helps teachers get a jump on their day. It serves the needs of employers who hire older kids to work after school. And it’s great for enabling families to shoe-horn a few more extracurriculars into the daily schedule.

What it doesn’t help is a teenager’s ability to get adequate sleep in order to learn and function well — a study-proven fact.

In making its recommendation that middle school and high school classes not start until 8:30 a.m. or later, the academy notes that teens who don’t sleep enough “often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and decline in academic performance.”

That seems to me like a shopping list of all the things from which you’d try to protect your children.

It’s not as simple, the pediatricians note, as simply sending a teenager to bed earlier. Their natural adolescent sleep-wake cycles “make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.” To get the sleep they need starting at that hour, most would still be snoozing when the first class of the day starts. Forget getting up and getting dressed and finding their way to school. My kids get to school about 7:15 a.m.; they get up around 6 a.m. to pull it off. If they fall asleep right at 11, they still fall at least 90 minutes short of recommended sleep time every day.

Nationally, about 40 percent of high schools start classes before 8 a.m. and only 15 percent start at the recommended 8:30 a.m. or later, the academy said. It's similar for middle school.

In a release urging later start times, the policy statement’s lead author, Dr. Judith Owens, says that “chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today.”

Teens who get enough sleep, she says, are less likely to be overweight, depressed or have car crashes. They are more apt to get higher grades, earn better standardized test scores and enjoy “an overall better quality of life.”

The beginning of school was probably not the best time to advocate for a changed school schedule. I tend to doubt policymakers will look at the AAP recommendation and remake the school year that’s getting underway.

There’s a lot that goes into getting the school day going successfully, regardless of start time, beginning with basic scheduling of everything from school buses and breakfast program hours to which classes are offered when. It also has potential to increase traffic congestion because many jobs start at or around the recommended hours for school start times, putting more people on the road simultaneously. It would certainly complicate some family schedules.

But not one of those negatives comes close to the benefit of figuring out how to help children at one of the most crucial points in their developmental and educational lives so they thrive instead of drag.

The teenage years are when children really begin taking the steps that will help them be successful, healthy, competent adults. Or not. We ought to consider helping them make the grade.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

1. PeachM
London, 00,
Aug. 26, 2014

How does this square with kids being sent to early morning seminary?

2. JoeBlow
Far East USA, SC,
Aug. 26, 2014

Sometimes, what is ideal is not realistic.

We are not merely talking about moving school times back 1/2 hour. The ramifications are much more significant than that. Primarily, adults with jobs.

A good lesson for kids is this. The world will not conform to you. Get used to it.

3. Needtosleep
The woodlands, TX,
Aug. 26, 2014

This is so true. This article does not address the Zero hour that too many schools have now with early hour school programs. Furthermore, the LDS church early seminary program. We need some sleep. We have seminary at 5:30 AM in out area. If it was this early in Utah, the church would make a change from their own kids getting up early. We need to have seminary in the afternoon or Saturday and forget this early hour where the kids are not learning. Sleeping in seminary and then throughout the school day. Very unproductive. Not family friendly

4. Ball Boy
Payson, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Here are a few easier steps to try before we make wide scale changes to something that has been in practice for decades:

1-Turn off cell phones at 10:00 p.m.
2-Leave cell phones to charge on kitchen table. Not in the bedroom.
3-Go to bed.
4-Sleep cell phone free.
5-Drink a little less soda & eat a little less sugar.

Then sit back & see if that helps.

If not then I'll listen to your study.

5. Topher
Herriman, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

It's too bad parents aren't being parents. For instance, many years ago when I was going to high school and catching the bus at 6:30 am, I had already been up for at least one hour because of caring for animals. There is still 24 hours in a day, last time I checked.
One of the biggest problems is the phone that everyone seems to need. We can't turn them off at night for fear we might miss something. Hey Mom and Dad, be the parents and, if necessary, lock up the phones overnight. Have a regular schedule set up for kids to follow, ie bedtime at 9:00 pm, wake up at a time necessary to get to school/work on time. I've got news for some of you, work start times are just as early as school start times and some are earlier.
Life is full of inconveniences, learn to adapt and overcome. Quit blaming everyone and everything else for your children's problems. Start looking in the mirror to see who the responsible person is for raising your children. Set your children up for success not failure or culture shock when they get out of school.