Thirty years of research have shown that teenagers’ biology prevents them from getting to sleep much before 11 pm, and with most high schools starting classes around 8 am, they are chronically sleep deprived.
The hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep, behaves differently during the teenage years. This means the biological sleep schedules of teens are about two hours behind the rest of the population. Experts discuss how students and even the economy would benefit from later school start times and the reasons many people and school districts still oppose the change.
Dr. Wendy Troxel, a Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says it’s a lot like having continuous jet lag for a few years.
Dr. Terra Ziporyn Snider, the Executive Director and co-founder of Start School Later, Inc. (a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of shifting school start times later), says most teens get the bulk of their REM sleep between 5 and 8 am, which is the same window of time most students must wake up to get to school on time. Although it might seem like the problem is just teens staying up too late on their phones, Dr. Ziporyn Snider says the root problem is the early start times of their school day. It regularly forces students into unhealthy sleep patterns. Dr. Troxel also notes there are 30 years of scientific research showing later school start times help students succeed.
Why the opposition to later school start times?
If the benefits of later start times are a matter of scientific consensus, why doesn’t the public school system adopt the practice?
According to Dr. Ziporyn Snider, it often comes down to school board politics and parent backlash. Communities considering pushing back start times often receive parent complaints about the impact on before- and after-school activities and how families who also have elementary school students have to accommodate two separate schedules.
Believe it or not, there are even regular complaints regarding the difference in traffic patterns later on in the day. All of these concerns combined often serve as motivation for school boards and administrators to keep things status quo.
In contrast, school administrators who have ultimately enacted the shift to later school start times say the positives far outweigh any negative consequences. They cite better student attendance and academic performance among the most beneficial impacts of making the switch.
- Dr. Wendy Troxel, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist, RAND Corporation (research and development nonprofit), Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
- Dr. Terra Ziporyn Snider, Executive Director and co-founder, Start School Later (nonprofit organization)