Scientists Really, Really Think School Should Start Later

Research on sleep-deprived students keeps rolling in.

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Apr 14 2017, 8:50pm

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The evidence continues to mount that school starts too early, leaving teenagers groggy and sleep-deprived when they should be learning. A recent Canadian study underscored that point, suggesting that starting school an hour later would likely improve learning and mental health—it'd even help prevent car accidents. Now, a position paper from a major sleep-research organization reiterates those benefits, and new research suggests it's not just high schoolers who should get to sleep later: College students could use some extra rest, too.

The call for letting teens sleep comes from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), with a position statement published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. For middle and high school students, it says, the school day should begin at 8:30 am or later. The group recommends 13 to 18 year-olds should regularly sleep 8 to 10 hours, yet data from the Centers for Disease Control show almost 70 percent of high school students report sleeping 7 hours or fewer on school nights.

The problem is that many schools just aren't designed for teens' circadian clocks, which shift about two or three hours later as they hit puberty, before shifting back in their early twenties. Changing biology makes it harder for them to fall asleep early, and combined with waking up early that can result in chronic sleep loss.

"Starting school at 8:30 AM or later gives teens a better opportunity to get the sufficient sleep they need to learn and function at their highest level," said lead author and AASM Past President Nathaniel Watson in a statement. Later start times have also been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association. Interestingly, that Canadian study went even further, recommending a 9:30 am start.

It's not just middle- and high-schoolers who could benefit from more sleep: A new study looking at university students found similar results. In fact, it suggested that optimal start times would be 11 am or noon—you know, basically the advice you'd get from any savvy upperclassman.

The authors reached that conclusion by combining two methods. They surveyed students about their chronotype (when they sleep and when they feel most alert), and they created a neurological model based on research into circadian rhythms. They took into account factors such as students' ages, the university's geographical location, and even the effects of daylight savings time.

The two approaches yielded similar results and dovetailed with the general research that later start times serve students better. Though the researchers note that thanks to differing chronotypes, any start time is likely to put someone at disadvantage. The most practical solution might be three alternative starts along with a shared session in the afternoon, when everyone's relatively alert.

Whether all this empirical evidence will lead to change is hard to say. After all, much of this isn't new knowledge; there are a lot of deeply entrenched beliefs about "early to bed, early to rise" and the connection between sleeping late and perceived laziness. Still, according to some, "sleep is the new status symbol." Maybe that kind of thinking, combined with the newest research, will help us redesign institutions to better suit our need to rest.

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