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School day starts too early for sleepy students (and teachers), researchers say

July 5, 2010 |  1:01 pm

Here’s a question for all you high school students out there in cyberspace: If it were up to you, would you rather start your school day at 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m.? (Sorry, noon is not an option.)

Sleep in school start time too early If you chose 8:30, you get an A+. According to a new study, students were far more likely to get eight hours of shut-eye at night and were less likely to report being unhappy, depressed, annoyed or irritated when they began their first class at 8:30.

Researchers from Rhode Island studied the student body of a New England boarding school that once began its day at 8 a.m. but later delayed its start time until 8:30. You might not be surprised to learn that the students slept in later after the change was made. But – get this – they started going to bed earlier too. Here’s how one student explained it to the research team:

“Well for me, ever since the 8:30 start, I have seen how much good 30 minutes of extra sleep does for me, so I have been inspired to … get an additional half hour on top of the 30 minutes.”

Of course, the switch to a later start time made students feel less sleepy. More specifically, the percentage of students who got less than seven hours of sleep per night fell from 34% before to 7% after, while the percentage of students who got at least eight hours of sleep jumped from 16% to 55%.

When school began at 8 a.m., 66% of students reported feeling “somewhat unhappy or depressed.” After delaying the first bell until 8:30, that figure fell to 45%. Likewise, the percentage of students who said they felt “irritated or annoyed” fell from 84% to 63%. (They were still teenagers, after all.)

But the time change wasn’t a panacea. Grades improved slightly, though the difference wasn’t statistically significant. And 89% of the kids still got less than the recommended minimum of nine hours of sleep each night, even after the start time was pushed back half an hour. As a result, 66% of students said they got sleepy while doing their homework, 18% continued to fall asleep during morning classes and 36% relied on naps to get through the day.

The lesson here isn’t that pushing back the clock doesn’t matter; it’s that a 30-minute delay probably isn’t enough, the researchers concluded in their study, which will be published in Tuesday’s edition of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The study echoes lots of other research documenting the perils of forcing teens to get to school too early. Adolescence brings with it biological changes that make it difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or to wake up before 8 a.m. Yet my alma mater begins its first period at 7:30 a.m., which is hardly unusual.

Sometimes the reluctance to change the school day schedule is blamed on teachers, but the Rhode Island study found that the faculty overwhelming embraced the 8:30 start time. As one teacher told the researchers:

“On a more personal note, I have found the 8:30 start to be the single most positive impact to my general quality of life at [the school] since I started 12 years ago.”

Still not convinced? Just sleep on it.

— Karen Kaplan

Photo: This student is surely dreaming of a school day that starts later in the morning. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.

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