Why do American Schools Start so Early and Why It Is Bad for Students?
Why do American Schools Start so Early and Why It Is Bad for Students?

Despite calls from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations to begin the school day later for middle and high school students, many schools still begin classes so early that students have a hard time getting enough sleep.

The number of hours children need to sleep depends on their age. According to the National Sleep Foundation, children ages 6–13 need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep at night. Teenagers (ages 14–17) need 8–10 hours each night. However, studies have demonstrated that most American adolescents are not getting enough sleep. Nearly 60% of middle schoolers do not get enough sleep on school nights. For high schoolers, that number is over 70%.

Late bedtimes and early school start times are contributing factors to a lack of adolescent sleep. A lack of sleep impacts overall student health, wellbeing, and academic success, and it can even have long-term health consequences.

Ever wonder why American school starts so early? Read on to know!

What Are Common School Start Times in the US?

In the United States, the average high school start time is 8:00 a.m. This time varies, though, depending on the state. Except for eight outlying states, each state’s average start time is between 7:45 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.

Other start time factors include the location of the school district and the school type. For example, 54% of high schools in the suburbs start before 8:00 a.m. By contrast, over half of charter high schools start after 8:00 a.m., and high schools with fewer than 200 students begin around 8:15 a.m on average. (This study did not include data on private schools.)

Data on average middle school start times is less recent and does not include public charter or private schools. When assessed by the CDC for the 2011–2012 school year, the average start time at middle schools in the United States was 8:04 a.m. This is slightly later than high school. The middle school start times varied widely, too, depending on the state. This study also noted the start time for combined middle and high schools; the average was 8:08 a.m.

In only three places — Washington DC, Alaska, and South Carolina — did a student’s day start at or after the recommended earliest time of 8:30 (on average, aggregating the starting times from the various school districts). Here is an overview, enough to make all but the most hardcore morning persons shudder:

→ 7:30 am — Louisiana’s sleepy-eyed students shuffle into class.

→ 7:36-7:45 am — lessons start at public high schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

→ 7:46-7:55 am — it is not even 8:00 am yet, but high school students are already taking classes in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

→ 7:56-8:05 am — now it is the turn of high schoolers in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington.

→ 8:06-8:15 am — well past the hour, students file into class in Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont.

→ 8:16-8:25 am — Just two states start school this late: Iowa and Minnesota. But they are not the latest.

→ 8:26-8:35 am — that is how late high school starts in Alaska and South Carolina. But wait…

Only in Washington DC, Alaska, and South Carolina does the school day start at or after the recommended earliest time of 8:30 am.

Why do American Schools Start so Early?

Photo: vox
Photo: vox

One large part of the answer: school buses. A lot of school districts re-use the same buses to pick up students from different schools: first the high schoolers, then the middle schoolers, and finally the elementary schoolers. In South Carolina, the order is generally reversed, which is why it is among the “latest” states on this map.

Early school starts are not the only cause of teenage drowsiness, but they are a crucial factor — especially because natural sleep cycles make it difficult for post-puberty teenagers to fall asleep before 11 pm.

A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students got less than the recommended amount of sleep (8.5 to 9.5 hours) on school nights. In the words of America’s leading soporific publication Sleep Review, the average American adolescent is “chronically sleep-deprived and pathologically sleepy”.

Chronic sleep loss in adolescents has been linked to a host of negative consequences:

Adolescents with sleep debt and/or disrupted sleep-wake cycles may suffer from poor judgment, lack of motivation, and overall reduced alertness, leading to poor academic performance.

→ There is a bidirectional relationship between sleep disturbances and mood disorders, especially depression.

→ Irregular and insufficient sleep in high school students has been found to predict certain types of risky behavior such as drunk driving, smoking, taking drugs, and delinquency.

→ Several studies found links between sleep deprivation and obesity. One study estimates that for each hour of sleep lost (over a long period of time), the odds of being obese increased by 80 percent.

→ Sleep deprivation leads to metabolic perturbations that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

→ Sleepiness increases the risk of traffic accidents. Young people are particularly affected. A 1995 study found that 55 percent of crashes due to drowsiness were caused by drivers 25 years or younger.

Because of all those reasons, not just the AAP but also the CDC recommends later school start times and urges parents to advocate for them. Fortunately, this has met some success. In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Bill 328, which requires middle schools to begin no earlier than 8:00 am and high schools no earlier than 8:30 am. It will go into effect in 2022.

Why is it bad for students to start early?

Countless studies have shown that early school start times are associated with students getting less sleep, which negatively affects student academic performance. Students with less sleep have difficulty paying attention in class and are likely to have lower grades. They may also experience irritability and fatigue.

Other concerns with early school start times and the resulting insufficient sleep include:

♦ Increased likelihood for participating in risk-taking behaviors, such as bullying and fighting.

♦ Greater chance of unhealthy behaviors including alcohol and drug use and tobacco smoking.

♦ Higher risk of athletic injury.

♦ An increase of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.

♦ Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

A lack of sleep also has long-term physical and mental health consequences. Poor quantity and quality of sleep can lead to health concerns such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Adolescents and Sleep

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teenagers aged 13 to 18 years should regularly sleep 8 to 10 hours per day for good health. Adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to

Be overweight.

Not engage in daily physical activity.

Suffer from symptoms of depression.

Engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco, and using illicit drugs.

Perform poorly in school.

During puberty, adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning as a result in shifts in biological rhythms. These biological changes are often combined with poor sleep habits (including irregular bedtimes and the presence of electronics in the bedroom). During the school week, school start times are the main reason students wake up when they do. The combination of late bedtimes and early school start times results in most adolescents not getting enough sleep.

Everyone Can Play an Important Role

Parents

  • Model and encourage habits that help promote good sleep: Set a regular bedtime and rise time, including on weekends. This is recommended for everyone— children, adolescents, and adults alike. Adolescents with parent-set bedtimes usually get more sleep than those whose parents do not set bedtimes.
    • Dim the lighting. Adolescents who are exposed to more light (such as room lighting or from electronics) in the evening are less likely to get enough sleep.
    • Start a “media curfew”. Technology use (computers, video gaming, or mobile phones) may also contribute to late bedtimes. Parents should consider banning technology use after a certain time or removing these technologies from the bedroom.
  • Contact local school officials about later school start times. Some commonly mentioned barriers to keep in mind are potential increases in transportation costs and scheduling difficulties.

Health care professionals

Educate adolescent patients and their parents about the importance of adequate sleep and factors that contribute to insufficient sleep among adolescents.

School officials

Learn more about the research connecting sleep and school start times. Good sleep hygiene in combination with later school times will enable adolescents to be healthier and better academic achievers.

Best School Start Times

Photo: healthdigest
Photo: healthdigest

Both the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that both middle and high schools begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.5 Both organizations want to ensure students get adequate sleep so that they are alert and prepared to learn at school.

Biology plays a large factor in the sleep cycles of children and adolescents. Around the beginning of puberty, most adolescents experience later sleep onset and wake times, also called “phase delay”. This phase delay can shift the body’s internal clock back by up to two hours. As a result, the average teenager cannot fall asleep until 11:00 p.m. and would do best waking up at 8:00 a.m. or even later.

A later school start time helps accommodate this biological need. Overall care for sleep hygiene, such as having a good night’s sleep and following back-to-school sleep tips, can also help adolescents regulate their sleep.

Other factors that affect student sleep are cultural expectations. American middle and high school students often take on various extracurricular activities — such as sports, clubs, and jobs — which often extend into the evening hours. High school students also have more homework, late-night technology use, and fewer parent-set bedtimes, all of which may cause students to stay up later than is appropriate for getting adequate sleep.

Why Are Later School Start Times Better?

Later school start times support the biological needs of adolescents; they increase the number of sleep adolescents gets. Other benefits of later start times include:

♦ Improved attendance at school.

♦ Decreased tardiness.

♦ Better student grades.

♦ Fewer occurrences of falling asleep in class.

♦ Reduced irritability and depressive symptoms.

♦ Fewer disciplinary issues.

♦ A decline of motor vehicle crashes. One study showed a 16.5% decrease in the teenage crash rate after the school start time was pushed back one hour.

Disadvantages of Later School Start Times

While there are numerous benefits of later school start times, there are a few possible negative outcomes:

Scheduling conflicts. These may arise for athletic and academic competitions against schools with earlier start times and therefore an earlier dismissal.

Transportation challenges. Later start times will likely mean more busses on the road later in the day; this could create more traffic and increase travel delays.

Childcare. Some families rely on older students to care for younger siblings after school; this may be more difficult if high schools dismiss later than elementary or middle schools.

However, these problems can likely be solved with flexibility and thoughtful planning.

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