Starting school later allows adolescents to get more sleep, thus improving student’s physical and mental health, attendance, and academic performance, according to new research published by Science Advances.
Adolescents are recommended to get nine hours of sleep a night, but a number of external factors – including interrupted sleep from academic responsibilities and light-emitting devices – has degraded sleep quality and length so that students are only getting about 6 hours and 50 minutes of sleep per night. And because teens don’t produce melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, until later in the night, merely going to bed earlier isn’t really helping.
To help combat sleep deprivation, a growing number of school districts are delaying opening bell by up to an hour.
While a growing body of research supports later school start times, researchers at the University of Washington worked with two schools in Seattle – Franklin High and Roosevelt High – to determine if there was any correlation between between the change and academic performance specifically. In 2016, Seattle public schools changed the starting bell from 7:50 am to 8:45 am.
Sleep deprivation has a disproportionate impact on lower income kids and moving to later starts has decreased that harm.” – Cindy Jatul, teacher, Seattle Public Schools
By providing a group of sophomore biology students at each school with sleep-tracking watches and a daily sleep diary, the researchers collected the data two weeks prior to the schedule change and two weeks after. They found that the students on average gained an extra 34 minutes of sleep.
Following the later start time, students were also more alert and engaged in class, absences and tardiness decreased, and final grades increased by 4.5 percent.
Starting school later also helped students combat the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation, such as fatigue, depression, and memory and cognition impairment.
Delayed start times may even lead to a decrease in the achievement gap between students from low and high socioeconomic backgrounds, said the researchers.
Low-income students make up almost two-thirds of the population at Franklin High, compared with only 12 percent over at Roosevelt High. Although Roosevelt’s students experienced little change after the hour setback, Franklin students’ tardiness and first-period absences dropped to levels similar to Roosevelt’s students.
A Challenge But It’s Worth It
Cindy Jatul, a biology teacher at Roosevelt High School and member of the Seattle Education Association, helped organize the shift in start times for the Seattle school district. After seeing firsthand the effects of sleep-deprivation on her students and her own children, Jatul co-led the Start School Later chapter in Seattle. Start School Later is an advocacy group promoting student health and education by raising public awareness about the correlation between sleep and school hours.
As a former nurse practitioner, Mrs. Jatul has “long been aware of the issues that our early start times have caused in terms of sleep deprivation, which ties into numerous health and learning issues.”
“Sleep deprived teens struggle to learn, have greater risk for depression, anxiety, suicidality, sports injury, and car accidents,” Jatul explains.
After the switch to later start times in Seattle, Jatul noticed that students were more awake and engaged in morning classes and better able to participate in analytical thinking.
Still, in Seattle and in other districts across the country, many are concerned with the problems that later school start times pose. Parents are worried that children may have to walk home after dark, coaches and club-leaders are concerned about after school activities going late into the night, and administrators are unsure of the cost and logistics of changing bus schedules.
Jatul noted that the district-wide time change did not come without dissent and challenges.
“It took nearly five years of community-based advocacy to get the school board to vote for later starts for middle and high schools. There was opposition from athletic directors, a previous superintendent, and some parent groups. There were also numerous logistical complications to address mainly around transportation,” she recalls.
Jatul and other Seattle Education Association Members formed the Bell Time task force to address concerns about costs and logistics. The team found that delaying opening bell could actually benefit schools. Modifying the bus schedule, for example, would require the district to reevaluate routes. The task force found modified start times would allow them to fix inefficiencies existing in the current bus schedule system.
The task force’s report also pointed out districts would likely save money on programs for disciplinary actions, school health clinics, counseling, and class failures. Students are less likely to need these programs when they get more sleep.
Jatul’s support for later start times has not changed after Seattle implemented the shift. She strongly believes that the adverse effects of sleep deprivation are far more detrimental than the challenges and adjustments created by starting school later.