In David K. Randall’s intriguing book Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, our circadian rhythms are a recurring theme. It turns out that as teenagers pass into puberty, their body clocks basically shift two hours backwards.

Instead of going to bed at 9 or so, teenage bodies do not begin to be ready for sleep until at least 11 o’clock at night. While those a few years younger are waking up refreshed and ready for school, adolescents feel jetlagged and sleepy in the morning as a result of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin still being released to their brains well past sunrise.

While the science supports recommendations for a later school start for adolescents, it wasn’t clear at first how parents would react to the change. Would they complain that it would only make their teens lazier? Would parents see it as making their own already hectic days even harder to get through?

According to a new study from University of Michigan researchers, half of parents say they would support later school start times.

Delayed School Start Times

An increasing number of schools across the U.S. are looking into delayed school start times. Research clearly shows the benefits for adolescents’ physical and mental health, including reduced risks of obesity and depression. Not to mention the obvious potential improvements in learning.

Last year even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

Matthew M. Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., director of the National Poll on Children’s Health and professor of pediatrics and internal medicine in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the U-M Medical School, said:

Teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived and that can negatively impact their health and well-being. We know teens are biologically wired to have later sleep cycles, which has raised the question of whether school start times that align to adolescents’ natural sleep rhythms could help improve health outcomes.

Among parents polled with teens age 13-17, whose middle or high schools started before 8:30 a.m., about 2 in 5 believed later start times would permit their teens more sleep. 1 in 5 parents said it would improve academic performance.

In the meantime, others were anxious about how later start times would affect schedules and logistics. 1 in 5 parents said a delayed start would not allow enough time for after-school activities. 1 in 7 expected the change to negatively affect transportation issues.

Twenty-seven percent of parents said they would only support the later time if it didn’t impact school budgets while 24 percent would support the change regardless.

8.5 to 9.5 Hours of Sleep per Night

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations are that adolescents receive 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep each night. Research shows that after the start of puberty, teens go to sleep later and wake up later than younger children.

The lack of sleep has been linked to mental health problems, increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and a decline in school performance.

Davis, who is also professor of public policy and public health at the University of Michigan, added:

The idea to delay school start times is still fairly new, and our poll shows that parents seem conflicted about whether or not it’s the right move. While many recognize the benefits of more sleep for their kids, there are real life concerns about how the change may interfere with after-school activities, logistics and school budgets. As more schools in the country consider this change, we recommend parents get involved with these discussions.

Real World Results

But how does the idea play out in real life? Quite well, actually. Randall’s book describes the findings of one year-long study of on high school’s students:

Despite the fears of some parents, teenagers did in fact spend their extra hour sleeping and reported that they came to school feeling rested and alert. At the same time, the number of on-campus fights fell, fewer students reported feeling depressed to their counselors, and the dropout rate slowed.

As for academic performance:

The year before the district shifted its srarting time, the top 10 percent of student’s in Edina’s high school averaged a combined 1,288 out of 1,600 on their SAT scores. The next year, the top 10 percent averaged 1,500.

The University of Michigan report found that only 20 percent of parents had heard about the new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommending later start times for school but 71 percent of parents agreed with the guidelines once they were aware of them.

For More Information:

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health

Wolfson AR, Carskadon MA. Sleep schedules and daytime functioning in adolescents. Child Dev. 1998 Aug;69(4):875-87. PMID: 9768476

National Sleep Foundation: Later School Start Times

David K. Randall Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep 2012 W.W. Norton & Co.

Wahlstrom, K. (2002). Changing Times: Findings from the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times. NASSP Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 633, December, 2002, pp. 3-21.

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