The Pros and Cons of Later School Start Times: Will Extra Zzz’s Bring Teens More A’s?

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The hallway of a typical American high school before the first bell can look like a scene from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Teenagers shuffle towards classrooms listlessly, dragging their backpacks and feet, their dark-circled eyes barely open. It’s usually a lack of sleep that turns most teens into zombies, and new research suggests that later school start times might help bring them back to life.

University of Minnesota researchers studied 9,000 students over three years and found that students who got at least eight hours of sleep had higher test scores, academic achievement and attendance records. The chances of teens getting optimal amounts of sleep correlated with later start times — when school starts at 7:30 a.m., the researchers found that only 34 percent of students get at least eight hours of sleep. When they begin at 8:35 a.m., up to 60 percent of students get eight hours. When they start as late as 8:55 a.m., 66 percent of students get eight or more hours of sleep, the recommended amount of sleep for everyone.

The three-year project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used data from students attending eight high schools in three states. The study not only found that later school start times at the schools raised academic performance, but it also decreased tardiness, substance abuse, symptoms of depression, and consumption of caffeinated drinks. In addition, the study found that there was a 70 percent drop in the number of car crashes involving teen drivers at Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming, which shifted to the latest start time of the eight schools (8:55 a.m.).

“The research confirmed what has been suspected for some time,” said Kyla Wahlstrom, Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), which conducted the study. “High schools across the country that have later start times show significant improvements in many areas. The reduction of teen car crashes may be the most important finding of all, as the well-being of teens and the safety of the general public are interrelated.”

The National Sleep Foundation has said that teenagers actually need more sleep than the rest of us (9.25 hours), prompting Education Secretary Arne Duncan to ask local districts to consider delaying the first bell to help teenagers get more sleep.

When NEA Today asked its Facebook fans what they thought about delaying the first bell for high school students, the reactions were mixed.

“Why not offer a choice?” asked Mary Masters. “Have some electives early and some later, and schedule the bulk of the core from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. High school students are not just students. They are athletes, employees, caretakers of siblings and parents. One size does not fit all.”

Some, like Robert Thomas and Myra Lewis, are less sympathetic.

“Too much playing on computers and phones is the problem,” says Thomas. Lewis says, “They need to learn that life is about getting up early and getting at it!”

Terri Gardenshire Messing says it’s only natural that high school should start later: “Melatonin levels for teens do not kick in until later at night, so teens don’t want to go to bed until late at night. Circadian rhythms are different in teens…Starting school later could possibly improve student learning.”

University of Minnesota’s Wahlstrom agrees. “Teen brains have a different biology,” she says. For the last 17 years, Wahlstrom has studied teenagers’ sleep cycles, brains and learning, and has concluded that schools that want students to arrive ready must have students arrive rested.

“Our research provides evidence of clear benefits for students whose high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later,” said Wahlstrom. “More research needs to be done, but these findings are substantive and should provide more information for school districts considering a change in start time.”