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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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Comments (42)

All of the people that posted things like "it's the kids fault because they stay up too late" obviously don't remember what its like to be a teenager. It has been proven that we need more sleep than adults, and what we are often doing at 3 am is homework! If I could I would go to bed at 8 but that is not the case. College is harder than ever to get into and after leaving the house at 6:45 to get to school and getting back at 6:30 (after sports, clubs, etc), I cant start my homework till at least 7 because of dinner. If an essay is due the next day, or I have more than one test in an ap subject, I can't even hope to get to bed before 2 am. Waking up 3 or 4 hours later is ridiculous. To be honest, I'm surprised that we haven't changed the schedules sooner.

10am would be great in Los Angeles, it would also stagger rush hour. You can tell when LAUSD is in session, rush hour is worse.

And from what I've read, more crime occurs between 3pm and 7pm - fewer latch-key kids after school.

Early-morning start times -- like summer vacations -- are an artifact of a time when most kids worked on farms, were used to getting up at dawn, and needed to be home in the early afternoon to help with farm chores.

A more logical 21st century schedule for high school would be 9-5.

Sure, kids could just go to bed earlier, but when you consider that many parents don't even get home from work until about 7 pm, that could mean sacrificing important family time. One year, in elementary school, my son had a 7 am start at his school; by the time I got home from work he was ready for bed. I only saw him for about 30 minutes in the morning, dragging him out of bed to get ready for school. And it was the same for all the other working parents too.

The reality is that most of us no longer live on farms. Certainly those in urban L.A. don't. The start time should change to reflect that reality.

I thought that bus schedules had a lot to do with an earlier start time. Wanting to use the same buses in a large district for both secondary and elementary they staggered the start and end times. Since parents always drive their kids to school now, there is no excuse to torture the kids and teachers by making them wake up so early.

As a teacher, I can tell you the reason school begins at 8:00 (actually 7:00 for zero period students) is because of the sports schedule and the bus schedule. Seems backwards, but I swear it is true. Ask any high school administrator who knows you well enough to give you a straight answer.

Eve - "And for your information, most jobs in the real world start at 9.a.m. because business leaders know that adults aren't fully functional until that hour, so get a clue. Boy, you must be a joy to be around."

Maybe, in the world of corporate offices and government workforce. Anywhere else, you might have to get up before the sun is up.

I once taught at a private school that doubled as a daycare center, meaning I worked as long as 8AM to 6PM until closing time (if I had closing duty). I HAD to work during summers. No 70 thou a year salary, and average benefits.

So yeah, pardon us in the real world for having a laugh at these kind of "serious" studies that explore the benefits of starting school 30 WHOLE minutes early for American students, when students abroad bascially live at school, and many working people brave the dawn to earn their daily bread. That extra 30 min is a few more rounds of late night COD modern warfare for the students.

Public school teachers - so sensitive, these people.

I never received enough sleep in high. If you are in a competitive academic program you usually have hours of homework, classes before regular school starts, and are involved in extra-curricular activities. Yes, some of this items can be cut out, but then you are not as competitive when applying for college. I routinely remember doing homework to 1 or 2 am. I rarely watched tv during the week (parental rule). Technology and TV are not the only reasons why student go to sleep late. Some might actually have homework that takes a long time to complete. I believe that starting later would benefit this student. They might actually stay awake in class and pay attention. They just might actually learn something.

I agree that delaying the start time will only encourage most students to stay up later. The real problem is that teenagers really do need 9+ hours sleep. When I was that age, my parents forced me to get 8 hours of sleep every night, but I would still wake up tired as hell. Then on Saturdays I would sleep in for 10+ hours--uninterrupted. Of course, now I've become an insomniac who has to resort to sleep aids. :p

Is this a joke? If kids are not getting enough sleep then their parents should make sure they are in bed at a decent time. America needs to stop coddling these kids and stop making excuses for low grades, low attention spans and future low chances for success.

I returned late in my career to school and had an 8:00am calculus class. I recall the morning after daylight savings time change when everyone had an extra hour to get to class, all the kids were much, much more alert and chipper. So based on that observation I can believe a shift back in the morning class start times would be a good thing.

Totally agree with India Andrews. In the UK we start at 0900 and finish at 1515 or 1530 and that's all the way from 4 until 16 years old. If kids don't get enough sleep because parents allow them to stay up, then the parents get summoned to the school to explain..

Childre here do start school too early. In my native Scotland we started at 9 a.m. (schools were within walking distance, too) but didn't finish until 4 p.m.
That was good in summer as we had enough light to play after school but winter was hard as you'd be going to school in the dusk and coming home in it, too.

I strongly disagree with this article. When I was in high school we started at 9am and got out at 4, one year we started at 9:15 and got out at 4:15. On "minimum" days we would start at 10:30 and get out around 4 too and we had one of the highest truancy rates in our school district. It made it completely inconvenient for our baseball team since we didn't have lights; we had to practice in the morning from 6-8. Other athletic teams, had to practice after school, and honestly it did take away from our study time since we got out of practice late and still had to sleep late.

So, if they really think that starting school later is better, think again. It's not the best idea for students or teachers.

Leave it to some clown to blame teachers unions for this study. Unbelievable. I am a teacher. At my high school, school starts at 7:56 unless you are a student who has a 'zero' period class, then you start at 6:41. As this study, and countless others over the years show, adolescents simply don't function all that well at those hours. It's a matter of science. The main reason why scheduling continues despite the findings is twofold, at least at my school. First, bus transportation schedules make it necessary to start the older students after the younger ones, despite the fact that the younger ones don't have wake-up-early-issues. But mostly, the schedule is determined by extracurricular activities that take place after school. Since most of these activities take place outdoors, they have to be completed before sundown.
Teachers are professionals and will gladly start school at whatever time is most beneficial to students. Period.

The problem isn't TV and gaming and tweeting, Paul. It's biological. I never got to sleep before 11 in high school either, and I only had basic cable. Could never manage. I mostly filled my time with reading and exercise, too. So I slept through math and science a lot XD

Now, I have a job that starts anywhere from 10am to 4pm, and I must say, it's very agreeable, even though I'm older. I never liked college classes before 10 either... I took one for a year and that was enough.

In Pennsylvania we started our school day at around 0740. My bus came at 0700 on the dot... so I was waking up anytime between 0530 and 0600 (on a good day) so that I had time to eat breakfast, get ready and shovel my way out through the snow. Granted, our school day was done at 1430-ish and I was home a little after 1500 on days there was no practice or rehearsals... I thought it was really rough until I joined the Army and 0530 became "sleeping in." Now I'm a college student, and 0530 is typical for me again. It sucks but hey, that's life. It may be a good thing if everything isn't all paved and easy for kids. A little challenge can go a long way.

To all those that say parents need to get kids to bed sooner, I whole heatedly agree. For me I was in walking distance of grade school, Junior High, and High school. Once I hit 8th grade I had what we called zero hour and that class startred at about 7:20 AM. In 9TH grade I had a class at the Highschool which started a little bit before that then had to walk back to Jr. High for the rest of my classes. Was I tired??? Yes there where days and it was my own damn fault, I stayed up to late the night before. Im sorry but for those parents that give thier kids a tv and a computer and other things including cell phones, thats great BUT TAKE THEM OUT OF THIER ROOMS!!!, and try monitoring them a bit more. sorry if they are falling alseep in school its thier own fault and the parents, NOT the schools, cause, whaaaa school starts too early. Once you get out in the real world what are they going to do??? I have had a few jobs where I started at 3 AM. and worked till 3 pm or later in the day.
Then the military and government cant figure out why the ones going into the military now cant hang. Least when I did my 9 years and Desert Storm time I was ready for it and not complaining to the T.I. in basics cause we had to get up too early, I was already use to it.

 


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