A.M. blues: Teens sleep longer, more engaged in academics when school starts later

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The life of the average American adolescent can be jam packed with commitments. Between school, after school sports, a social life, and homework, many teens say they barely have enough time to get enough sleep on most weekdays. Now, a study may have found a way to help students get more sleep, while simultaneously providing more energy to complete homework later in the day.

Researchers discovered that middle and high school students slept longer and were less likely to be too drowsy to finish their homework if their schools started later in the morning.

The Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colorado experimented with school start times in the fall of 2017. It delayed the start times for middle schools by 50 minutes, shifting from an 8 A.M. first bell to 8:50, and delayed high school start times by 70 minutes, from 7:10 A.M. to 8:20. One year after the change, sleep times reported by students were 31 minutes longer among middle schoolers and 48 minutes longer among high schoolers.

“Biological changes in the circadian rhythm, or internal clock, during puberty prevents teens from falling asleep early enough to get sufficient sleep when faced with early school start times,” says principal investigator Dr. Lisa J. Meltzer, associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, in a media release. “This study provides additional support that delaying middle and high school start times results in increased sleep duration for adolescents due to later wake times.”

Officially, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends middle schools and high schools start at 8:30 A.M. or later to support improved teen health, alertness in school, and safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, found that only 14% of high schools and 19% of middle schools follow this recommendation.

The Greenwood Village study involved over 15,000 students in grades six through 11. The students completed online surveys during school hours before the start time change in spring 2017, and after the start time change in spring 2018. These surveys asked students about weekday and weekend bedtimes, wake times, total sleep times, sleepiness while doing homework, and overall academic engagement.

The portion of students who reported feeling too sleepy to complete their homework declined after the school start time delay from 46% to 35% in middle school students, and from 71% to 56% among high school students. Overall academic engagement scores also improved significantly after the start time change among both middle and high schoolers.

“The study findings are important because getting enough sleep is critical for adolescent development, physical health, mood, and academic success,” Meltzer says.

For what it’s worth, the superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District, Dr. Scott Siegfried, says that he has received overwhelming support from students regarding the time changes.

“I don’t know how many of our high school students have come up to me and said, ‘This has changed my life for the better.’ They’ve told me they’re getting up to an hour of additional sleep before school starts,” Siegfried explains. “That extra sleep makes a real difference in terms of health and wellness. The input from our students and the numbers from this landmark study point to the same conclusion: The change in our start times has been a positive step and benefited our students’ everyday routines.”

The study is published in the scientific journal Sleep.

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Ben Renner

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