Guest Post: The Necessity of a Later School Start Time

By Matt Swanson

It’s time for change! High school students’ biological clocks are changing during puberty, and studies show that these changes render teenage sleep patterns different from that of children or adults. The biological clock, otherwise known as the circadian rhythm, is the internal body clock that regulates biological processes in a 24-hour cycle. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, during puberty teenagers need on average about 8½ to more than 9 hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, on very rare occasion is that attainable for BHS students, or any high school students in general, because of chronic sleep restriction. One may ask, why don’t high school students just go to bed earlier? Well, quite frankly because we can’t. High school students can’t go to bed earlier because we are biologically told to fall asleep and wake up later during puberty. Studies show that this change in sleep patterns seems to be due to the fact that the hormone melatonin is produced later at night for teens than it is for kids and adults. Melatonin can make it harder for teens to fall asleep early and also wake up early. Going to bed earlier is clearly not effective. Point blank, bird is no longer the word; the word is now, sleep!

Messing with circadian rhythms by decreasing the necessary amount of sleep that teenagers need with our early school start time carries many negative implications. For one, The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates that more than 100,000 accidents, 40,000 injuries, and 1,500 people are killed in the U.S. every year in crashes caused by drivers who are simply tired. Dr. Robert Vorona, the associate professor of internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, VA said that insufficient sleep “may lead to problematic consequences including mood disorders, academic difficulties and behavioral issues.” Reduced sleep is also linked to increasing the risk of metabolic and nutritional deficits, including obesity. Reduced sleep also gives teenagers more time to get into trouble after school. Reduced sleep also is shown in studies to increase teen depression. Reduced sleep also negatively impairs the grades of students in their first two class periods. Reduced sleep is also shown to negatively affect the attendance and tardiness of students. Lastly, but definitely not least importantly, reduced sleep is also shown in studies to increase the drop-out rates of students.

The only way to help aid my fellow BHS students and I, who are fighting in a biological struggle against lack of sleep, is by simply giving us more time in the morning for sleep. We need to extend the start of school by two hours in order to start seeing dramatic positive impacts on students. Sure, this means we are going to have to also extend the time in which school ends. Sure, this means that it is going to have an impact on sports. Sure, this means that it is going to have an impact on after-school jobs. However, shouldn’t this be not too much of a problem because aren’t we supposed to live by what we preach? My fellow students and I have grown up hearing the sermon from all of our superiors that our studies should fall first in our lives, only preceded by our families. Helping aid BHS students by simply extending our school start time is honestly as easy as counting the ABC’s.

Just picture Burlington High School with a later start time. No more would you see students walking around like zombies for their first two periods of the day, still wiping sleep from their eyes. Imagine for a moment how beneficial being wide awake could be to a student’s class participation, GPA, standardized test scores, or just plain life in general.

It’s time for change! Clearly, our early school start time is only impairing the capability and mentality of all of BHS’s students. Help fight back against circadian rhythms and CHANGE THE HOURS!

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14 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Necessity of a Later School Start Time

  1. Braden Parker says:

    But wont kids just go to bed much later? That would offset starting late. I know that if school started later id go to bed 2 hrs later.

  2. Matt Swanson says:

    Yes, some kids would probably go to bed later, but the point that I was addressing was mainly for the option to stay up late in the night, while still being able to receive enough sleep to function for the next day. My argument was already aimed at the kids staying up until 1+ AM in the night to finish homework, so going to bed 2 hours later wouldn’t change anything.

    Sure, if someone is going to go to bed at ridiculous and unnecessary times in the night then they’re going to offset this change, but, like with anything else, you have to maintain some personal responsibility. However, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem because if the students of BHS didn’t already have personal responsibility then we would have never been entrusted the IPads.

    Even without personal responsibility, eventually everyone will be biologically told that they need to go to sleep inorder to recover all of the lost hours that they spent doing something else… No matter how hard someone may try, nobody is Superman… Except for Clark Kent, of course. Extending the school start time will merely allow everyone to attain a reasonable amount of sleep on any of the weekdays. And, if someone chooses to spend a couple nights staying up “2 hrs later,” they will have the option to easily recover that missed sleep whenever they choose.

    Unlike now, when for the majority of high school students trying to achieve a necessary and healthy amount of sleep, nonetheless trying to recover lost sleep, is simply near impossible during the week.

  3. Interesting…. I’m reading this blog as I’m literally hounding my kids to get out of bed and get ready for school. It’s not that they’re neglecting their responsibilities and staying up late at night for selfish gain, it’s just that they’re too encumbered with school work and activities which are mandatory for college entrance some day.

    They’re always tired and running on a half tank of energy. A later start to school would benefit them as well.

    Great post, Matt!!

  4. Thanks, Matt. You are absolutely right, and as more and more evidence comes in about this, it’s unacceptable to continue starting high schools at the hours we do throughout most of the US. The problem, however, is that knowing something is wrong and trying to change it are two different things. As both a medical writer and a mother of 3 (only one of whom is still in high school), I’ve been fighting this battle for over a decade in my school system. Over time,I’ve come to understand that in my community and many others all over the country, politics, money, & myth inevitably win out over the best interests of the kids. That’s why I created a national petition to push for a minimum earliest start time, which would make it easier for local schools to do the right thing when they set their particular schedules. Although I generally support local control of schools, this isn’t just an educational issue–it’s also a matter of safety, health, and equity that’s going to take collective action on a national scale to resolve. To add your name to our petition (which at the very least should help raise national awareness about this issue, as well as help convince local schools to make changes), go to http://bit.ly/tWa4dS . And for more information about our growing national coalition see StartSchoolLater.net . Meanwhile, best of luck in your efforts!

  5. Matt Swanson says:

    Thanks, Dr. Snider! That sounds like a great initiative, and one that I would love to be a part of!

    I’m actually currently organizing information to put together into an argument to present to BHS’s School Board. If you have anything that you have used that you think that I could benefit from, please send it my way! You can reach me at mswan.school@gmail.com. Thanks!

    • Rachel Gould says:

      Nice post Matt! The BHS psychology classes are working on this very topic as part of designing schools that reflect current research on the teenage brain, sleep, memory, learning, and development. My question to you and other is; since we have to follow the federal guidelines for minimum number of minutes spent in time on learning in order to receive funding, then how late are you willing to have the school day be extended? However much time we push back the start, and I am sooooo in favor of a change, it would mean we do get out that much later.

  6. Matt Swanson says:

    Thanks, Mrs. Gould! Yeah, I addressed some of the implications that this change would bring in my third paragraph. However, I’m quite certain that most, if not all, of my peers would be willing to barter two hours of their evening in exchange for two hours in the morning. The only group that I believe may have an issue with this change is the Teacher Union. But, who really knows if you don’t even ask.

  7. Sarah Burnham says:

    It’s not the school’s job to make sure the kids get enough sleep. Where are you getting your information on puberty screwing with sleep patterns? And even so, tough crap. Besides, Larkin just enacted this policy of less homework so kids aren’t going to stay up at unreasonable hours finishing homework. Are we supposed to push it back further because kids aren’t going to change their sleeping habits? If it starts 2 hours later, kids will go to sleep 2 hours later. It may not be scientifically proven, but it’s the most likely result of a change in schedule. I’m fed up with this school. Kids need to learn to take care of themselves. If they don’t get enough sleep, they can fix it themselves. When they grow up, and they’re not getting enough sleep when they go to their jobs, they can’t ask their bosses to ask if they can change their schedules for more sleep. It doesn’t work like that. Isn’t the point of high school to get kids ready for the real world as well as getting a good education? Waking up early is something people have to deal with. Don’t go changing something drastically because a few kids complained about not getting enough sleep.

    • Mark Steinbach says:

      I totally see what you’re saying, Sarah, but – while a high school does need to prepare kids for the real world – a high school also should have a responsibility to keep kids healthy. I know I sound like a Concerned Mom, but it’s obvious that some kids getting 4-6 hours of sleep on a daily basis isn’t healthy and CAN affect all sorts of development. The dedication that a high school demands of a student (sports, clubs, what have you) is enough preparation for the real world. The line between the “real world” and high school is getting finer and finer, I think. Though the schools may not want to admit it, we’re expected to be building our transcript for college from freshman year. The pressures of the real world are spreading into high school. But if we have the power to ease this “real world” pressure by fixing our sleep patterns, why not?

      With a later time, the choice is in the hands of the students if you want to get to bed at a reasonable time the night before. Giving the students the personal responsibility to get to bed on time like a mature adult is preparation for the real world, no?

    • Matthew Swanson says:

      Sarah, in the Mission Statement of BHS it is clearly stated that students will be provided with a “safe environment” while studying at Burlington High School. Is it not evident that in and OUT of school, BHS is enforcing and working to maintain this “safe environment.” More directly, BHS is visibly enforcing their jurisdiction OUT of school, because, quite frankly, various students are being punished for actions they commit out of school which can be viewed as inhibiting the safe environment that BHS is trying to employ (I will not go into specifics).

      Now, a “safe environment” has many connotations. For instance, a “safe environment” is supposed to foster not only the physical health of a student, but the mental health as well. As I have covered in my blog post, and as various biology teachers all around the globe have covered as well, sleep goes hand-in-hand with the mental health and physical health or teenagers, and, more generally, of EVERY living thing. Therefore, if sleep is clearly connected to health, and health is clearly connected to a “safe environment,” and a “safe environment” is quoted directly from the list of missions and/or JOBS that BHS is trying to accomplish for their students, isn’t one of the JOBS of BHS to make sure that students studying at their school receive a sufficient and healthy amount of sleep? As argued above, quite simply, it is.

      The information and studies that I cited above, about “puberty screwing with sleep patterns,” were attained from Harvard Medical School’s countless research on biological circadian rhythms and the implications that they have on humans.

      Also, the policy that Mr. Larkin enacted on the basis of homework applies to school vacations. I’m not fighting for more sleep during the weekends or during school vacations, I am fighting for more sleep DURING the school week. You can already sleep in as long as you want during non-school days, and therefore, attaining healthy and sufficient amounts of sleep are possible.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “push it back further,” because how can you push back something “further” that has yet to be pushed. Changing the amount of homework over vacations does not “push” the start of school back any later. On Monday, and all following days, we will still be heading into school around 7:10 AM, the same time that it has been for many previous, but hopefully not future, generations.

      Your next point about how students will respond to a later school start time by going to bed later was previously answered in my response to the first comment from Braden Parker.

      Frankly, the entire summation of my blog entry was to clearly explain why students that aren’t receiving sufficient and healthy amounts of sleep CAN’T “fix it themselves.” Please refer back to my blog entry as to why.

      Yes, I do agree that the basic point of high school is to prepare students for the real world, but as Mark and I argued, a high school also definitely has the responsibility to keep students healthy, especially if they mention it as one of their core missions.

      Lastly, you can’t support an argument that only a few kids are complaining about lack of sleep, because, in a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the vast majority, far more than 50%, of high school students in the United States are complaining about lack of sleep. Please pardon my tone in this response, it was unintentional and only there because of my strong feelings and opinions on this topic.

  8. Sarah Jamal-Eddine says:

    In reality, the majority of people with jobs are scheduled 9-5, which is much later than our 7:30-2 schedule. But then again, it is people’s choice about when they decide to go to bed, and they have to judge what is best for them. If one kid can function with only a couple hours of sleep, it might not be the same for another and who knows how long that kid could go with only a couple hours a night. I for one have to take a couple melatonin supplements just to allow me to fall asleep before 3 in the morning, and I supposed to only use it for 2 weeks at a time, but I can’t because then I would never get a decent night’s sleep. It would be great to start school later. It works out better for the kids who can’t drive themselves around to their activities and such. But there is also the contradiction of the kids who have to babysit younger ones, if we changed the high school’s schedule, we would also have to change every other school in the town, which would pose not only a stress on people but traffic problems. Say we did start school at 9, everyone is going to work, which causes so much traffic in Burlington already, just take a look at Winn Street in the morning, and all the kids getting to school just adds to it. I’m all for changing the hours of school, but we really have to put all the cards on the table and think of every aspect of the change this would cause, because if we miss one little thing that upsets the balance then the school board might reject this idea immediately, without considering anything. If you need any help Matt, I would like to work on this proposal.

  9. Emily says:

    Actually there is a lot of data that has shown that adolescents in puberty have significantly different circadian rhythms than adults. Teens are not biologically wired to go to bed at 9 and wake up at 6. Schools that have changed to the late-start schedule have shown significant increases in standardized testing, revealing that perhaps retention and understanding are improved when teens are at their full learning capability, and not hindered by lack of sleep. Furthermore, I would say the point of high school, at least at BHS, is to prepare students for the rigors of college by establishing a firm foundation of knowledge and study habits so that they are able to get good grades, do well on standardized tests, get accepted to college, and define what areas in academia they want to pursue. If changing school hours helps them reach those goals, then I do not see any issue beyond inconvenience getting in the way, certainly not the issue that “it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.” High school is drastically different than both college and the “working world;” therefore, it should be treated as such. Of course, these changes require parents to ensure that their teens are not taking advantage of the change; however, waking up at 9am or 10 is much more welcome for a teen than 6.

  10. Rachel Gould says:

    Matt, sorry I misunderstood the two hour comment in your third para, “extending the start” means having a really long homeroom. Delaying the start is what you want to do, which makes sense, but there are many things to be considered.
    -Every minute we start later is a minute that we end later.
    -Transportation for all schools will be impacted.
    -HS students who watch younger siblings before parents get home, is this a demographic? I hear about it, but don’t know how pervasive it is.
    -Students are not required to do sports or clubs (one above commenter seems to think it is mandatory, but some kids do actually graduate and get into college with 0 activities.)
    -Sports would be from 4:30(ish) to 6pm or later, which can get into really less than optimal conditions and will lead to injuries in developing bodies. I’d personally try to move swim practice to 6:30am 😉
    When thinking about this discussion the other day I realized that at this time of year we would come home from school in the dark, this could lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’m not opposed to delaying the start, but I think there are many factors that need to be considered.
    Keep the discussion going! rzg

  11. […] Swanson, Guest Post: The Necessity of a Later School Start Time (Dec. 7, 2011) The Lounge: Students’ Information Blog [Burlington High […]

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