On average, the secondary school day begins at 8 a.m, which can make for some groggy students. Most parents will complain that their teen likes to stay up late and sleep in, but there is actually a scientific explanation behind that tendency. The hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep, behaves differently during the teenage years, meaning that a teen’s sleep schedule is about two hours behind the rest of the world. According to Dr, Wendy Troxel, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist, Rand Corp. and Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, it’s a lot like having continuous jet lag for a few years. Dr. Terra Ziporyn Snider, Executive Director and co-founder of Start School Later, says that most teens get the bulk of their REM sleep between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., which is also the time they are being woken up for school.
Dr. Snider says that even though it might seem that the problem is teens staying up late on their phones, that in the end the problem is really the early start time for school, because it forces the student into an unhealthy sleep pattern. says Dr. Ziporyn Snider. Dr. Troxel also points to thirty years of research that shows that later start times help students succeed.
So, if later start times are scientifically shown to be better, why hasn’t the public school system adopted them? According to Dr. Snider, it comes down to school politics and backlash from parents. Communities who have considered pushing back start times receive parent complaints about how the schedule affects after-school activities and before and after school care, how families who also have elementary school students have to change their routines, and even about the different traffic patterns later in the day. All of these concerns become reasons for schools to keep things as they are. In contrast, however, school administrators who have committed to the change say they will never go back, because the students show up more, and perform better.
- Dr. Wendy Troxel, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist, Rand Corporation and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
- Dr. Terra Zipporyn Snider, Executive Director and co-founder, Start School Later organization