Over the last decade, school start times for high school students has been an increasingly debated topic as sleep deprivation is clearly a problem for teens in the U.S. In the last several years, the research behind starting school later for teens has become more compelling and frequent along with an increasing number of influential organizations that are advocating for later start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics was the latest to join that chorus of advocates.
Just recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement recommending that middle and high schools delay the start of class until after 8:30 a.m.
Adolescents are currently severely sleep-deprived, notes the report, with 87 percent of high school students getting less than the recommended amount of 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night.
The reasons for this are varied and including the biological aspects that can make it difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. A recent article in Scientific American pointed out that a shift in circadian rhythms during the teen years impels kids to stay up later at night and sleep later into the morning due to melatonin changes in the brain. These changes start around age 13 and peak between 17 and 19.
When the lifestyle factors for teens are added in such as homework and extracurricular activities, the problem is only exacerbated. The National Sleep Foundation has provided a detailed backgrounder on the biology of teens and sleep as well as the pros and cons of starting school later.
There is also an increasing body of evidence that shows that a late school start time for teens leads to improved academic performance. This is bolstered by research that shows sleep-deprived teens have higher rates of depression and obesity.
The increasing momentum behind starting school later has advocates from all quarters that are engaging, debating and fighting for change on the local and national level for what they see as an educational crisis. An organization known as Start School Later, Inc./Healthy Hours provides a sampling of schools in 43 states that have enacted or plan to enact later start times.
The nonprofit organization is made up of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students, and other concerned citizens. Their stated goal is to develop and provide education materials and resources that advocate the cause of healthy school hours, both nationally and locally.
Although making such a change is happening on a local level with mixed results, the push for a national change is fraught with potential complications and roadblocks. It will likely be an accumulated body of successful implementations that definitively show improved academic as well as emotional and social improvements in student bodies that will spur more widespread acceptance. Until then, the science of sleep continues to gather information that shows the vital need for sufficient amounts of quality sleep at all ages.