Starting high school later may help sleepy teens
Published: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 3:37 p.m.
Quinn Cooney of Mill Creek, Wash., is excited about starting high school in September, but she's not looking forward to waking up at 5:30 a.m. to arrive on time. Classes for ninth-graders start at 7:30 a.m., 45 minutes earlier than they did in middle school.
"I think it is going to be harder to get up," said Quinn, 13. "I do think it is better to start early so that we can be finished early and do things after school, but I am worried that if I have a boring class for my first period that it will be hard to stay awake."
Decades of sleep research have confirmed what parents know: It's hard for teenagers to wake up early. Some high schools have adopted late starts around 8:30 a.m. to improve attendance and performance. But other districts say it's too complicated to shift schedules because of logistics involving buses and after-school activities.
About 40 percent of U.S. public high schools open before 8 a.m., according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, with just 15 percent starting 8:30 a.m. or later. In districts where early starts are necessary because the same bus does multiple runs for high school, middle school and elementary students, teens often get the early shift.
That's the case in Anne Arundel County, Md., where public high schools start at 7:17 a.m. and buses start running at 5:50 a.m. Lisa Rodvien taught high school there, in Annapolis, and says attendance at her first-period classes was "as low as 50 percent or below." Among those who showed up, "I would definitely see three or four kids with their heads down."
Earlier this year, Anne Arundel school officials laid out options for delaying start times to anywhere from 7:32 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. along with potential complications, such as additional costs if buses are added, child care issues where late-day schedules might prevent teens from picking up younger siblings after school, and implications for teams if they end up playing in the dark. Bob Mosier, spokesman for Anne Arundel schools, said no decisions have been made.
Megan Kuhfeld, a graduate student at the University of California-Los Angeles who's been studying late-start debates since she was an undergrad at Duke University in North Carolina, surveyed some 35 districts that switched to later starts and found most were glad they'd made the switch. Not only did students benefit, for the most part, but "the things people had feared — how transportation would be affected, how sports would be affected — became the new normal and people adjusted," she said.
But Kuhfeld knows firsthand the pros and cons of late-start high schools, having attended one in Chapel Hill, N.C. "I enjoyed waking up later than everyone in the area next to me where there were early start times," she said, but as a member of the tennis team, she had to miss sixth and seventh period classes to compete at other schools.
Yet often, young children are natural larks — up with the sun — while adolescents become more owl-like as puberty progresses. Groundbreaking studies done in sleep labs in the 1980s first documented teens' natural late-to-bed, late-to-rise sleep cycles, "and every study that's been done since finds the same thing," said Amy Wolfson, a sleep expert and psychology professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Wahlstrom says research shows teens don't get sleepy until around 10:45 p.m., when their bodies begin to secrete melatonin, but once they fall asleep, they stay asleep for about nine hours and 15 minutes, waking at around 8 a.m. "It's a factor of human biology that studies have replicated in Brazil, Italy, Israel and Korea," Wahlstrom said. "All have found identical sleep-wake patterns in teenagers.
These inborn sleep cycles explain why students often slumped at their desks in Rodvien's 7:17 a.m. classes in Annapolis. "I don't think most people understand how big of an impact this has both on kids' behavior in class and also getting to class," she said. This fall, though, she won't have to deal with it. She's switching to a middle school, where "it's going to be drastically better. School starts at 8:45."