For years, large medical groups have come together around a simple but extremely effective way to improve children’s physical and mental health: start school at 8:30 a.m. or later.
Plenty of research shows teens and teens – many of whom average more than three hours of homework per night, in addition to extracurricular activities and / or after-school jobs – don’t get enough sleep just because their days are starting. so early.
And new research published this week in the journal Sleep strengthens that argument, analyzing survey data from children in a large, diverse Colorado school district with more than 55,000 students, whose back-to-school hours have been pushed back because their district wanted to give them the opportunity for more rest.
The researchers followed students from 2017 (before the change) to 2019 (after the time change had been in effect for some time). Meanwhile, college start times were pushed back from 40 minutes to 60 minutes, while high schools started the day 70 minutes later.
Elementary schools, on the other hand, started an hour earlier, which the researchers say is a compromise that many school districts must make in order to push back start times later for middle and high school students to accommodate transport schedules.
Overall, the researchers found that teens benefited the most from late back-to-school hours, getting about four more hours of sleep per week. And, when school later started, fewer high school students reported having poor quality sleep and daytime sleepiness.
But middle school students also benefited from later start times, registering nearly two and a half hours more sleep per week and also noting that they were generally less sleepy throughout the day.
Lack of sleep and daytime sluggishness both have real and clear implications for children’s mental and physical health.
“Lack of sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks, including overweight, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, as well as poor academic performance,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.
The CDC has been very clear on the need to extend back-to-school hours, simply stating, “Schools start too early.”
Yet despite such a broad agreement from many major medical groups and experts, many schools in the United States still start well before 8:30 a.m.
“Schools are a collection of moving parts, from pre-dawn housekeeping and catering preparation to bus activities and after school,” a 2019 Education Next article noted. “Family work routines are often organized around school rhythms. The change in the start times of secondary education sends shockwaves through these systems. “
And these are probably the reasons why, as the authors of the new study note, less than 21% of colleges and less than 18% of high schools in the United States actually start at 8:30 a.m. or later.
The researchers are also careful to point out that while their results do not show that earlier start times hurt elementary school students, whenever this is “logistically and financially feasible,” districts should make an effort to ” adopting later school start times, which they believe are really best for students and families. Elementary students may not have trouble getting to bed early enough as middle and high school students do – and their biological clocks predispose them to fall asleep earlier – but they could still benefit from it. a little more rest.
After an unprecedented year in American education, health experts hope there may be greater momentum around efforts to start school later. Indeed, one of the few bright spots in the COVID-19 pandemic has been that some children are finally sleeping the recommended night just because they don’t have to rush in the morning.
“If there was ever a time when we were going to change school hours to promote children’s sleep, it seems like the perfect time,” said pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin, who runs the popular Instagram account Advice I Give. My friends and author of the recent book “Parenting in a Pandemic”.
In general, elementary-aged children should aim for 9 to 12 hours per night, recommends the AAP, while middle school and high school students should aim for 8 to 10 hours per night.
And experts say those hours, night after night, are really crucial to the overall well-being and mental health of children.
“So many initiatives to promote mental health require a lot of resources, like increasing the number of therapists available … so if we can do things to change our environment, like adjusting the school schedule to promote the circadian rhythms known to students in school, it’s a population-level intervention that can make a difference, ”said Fradin.