Should High School Start Later In The Day?

by
Owen Poindexter
High school students are notoriously apathetic, emotionally unpredictable, and many underachieve. While some of that may be a simple fact of adolescent life, schools may want to consider making an adjustment that could alleviate the struggles of high school: start later.

sleep, high schoolers, sleep deprivation, sleep debt, high school
Studies of high schools that start later show that students are happier and more alert. PHOTO: Borodikhin, CC License

High school students are notoriously apathetic, emotionally unpredictable, and many underachieve. While some of that may be a simple fact of adolescent life, schools may want to consider making an adjustment that could alleviate the struggles of high school: start later. Two Minneapolis school districts decided to give it a try, and the results will have other schools thinking about making a similar move. The Edina School District, in suburban Minneapolis, changed their start time from 7:25 to 8:30 in the late 90s, and the Minneapolis Public School District followed suit with similar adjustments. A 2005 study showed that the changed did not cost Edina any money and there were marked improvements in Edina’s students:

“The research of Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota found that ninth-grade attendance improved, and that students were exhibiting fewer behavioral problems and signs of depression after they were able to sleep later.”

Wahlstrom herself told Education World that she was not necessarily expecting the results she got:

"We went in with 'tough eyes,' ready to report what was not working well. But overall, the change was incredibly positive. Teachers were unanimously happy; they had more alert learners. Parents said their kids were easier to live with because they were more rested. And administrators said the whole temperament of the building calmed down; there were fewer discipline referrals.

"Kids said they were feeling more in charge of their learning: they were more awake, less depressed, and not falling asleep in school."

Researchers are now getting a better handle on why that would be. The endocrine system is still developing in adolescence, and as a result, sleep cycles shift later in that time. Recent research has shown that high school night owls have more issues academically and emotionally due to accumulated sleep debt. A study in the Nov. 10 edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health found that high school night owls finished school with lower grades and were more vulnerable to emotional issues.

While the research shows that later school start times provide benefits across the board, teens can make up for it if their school refuses to change. Earlier bedtimes and naps can help make up the gap. Still, a tweak in how schools operate would be a huge benefit.

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