High school start times cause sleep deprivation

Teens and sleep deprivation

Are your teens sleep deprived? There’s a buzz around the country about teenage sleep deprivation and a new movement called Start School Later. There’s actually an online petition that parents are signing to move back start times.

As a parent, I’m all for starting school later. My kids wake up at 6 a.m. on school days — they’re miserable and so am I.

Sleep deprivation is a real problem with teenagers and parents like me pay the price when our tired teens are downright cranky. Yet as Dr. Jeff Deitz points out on today’s Huffpost Healthy Living blog, there is still resistance to starting high school later to accommodate the biological time clocks of teenagers

How can it be that despite overwhelming evidence that sleep deprivation in teenagers is every bit the public health menace that cigarette smoking is, school administrators have held fast to the status quo?

Dr. Dietz says that sleep researchers have convincingly demonstrated that, on average, teenagers need nine hours of sleep and that their brains are programmed for them to stay up later than adults. I’m a night owl and many nights, I go to bed at midnight and my teens are still up. I would guesstimate that most teens get about six hours of sleep on school nights.

Of course, I don’t think its just the teenage biological clock that’s to blame. Some of the reason for the late nights, I think, is the huge amount of homework teens get in their honors and AP classes ( which are almost requirements to get into colleges these days).

Dr. Dietz compares teen sleep deprivation to cigarette smoking:  “Not getting enough sleep is as pervasive in today’s culture as was consuming two or three packs per day of Lucky Strikes in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.” He’s so right.

The risk for our teens is that sleep is essential for sustained focus, concentration, and attention which are crucial for succeeding in high school. Dietz writes: “Clinically, every psychiatric disorder I treat in adolescents is worsened by getting too little sleep. Well over half the teenagers who come to me with attention symptoms are sleep deprived.”

Some schools are taking action.

CBS News recently reported on an eye-opening study says delaying high school starting times by just 30 minutes can reap big rewards. The study at St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island, discovered students there were more alert in class, expressed better moods, arrived to class on time, and even reported eating a healthier breakfast due to a 30-minute later start.

“The results were stunning. There’s no other word to use,” says Patricia Moss, academic dean at the boarding school where the study was done.

Dietz believes high school should start at 8:45 a.m., or better at 9 o’clock.

I realize some kids work after school and starting early allows for earlier release. But I think there’s a middle ground that can be found in most school districts.

Parents, what do you think about teenage sleep deprivation?  Some parents have decried the movement to start school later, calling it “the coddling of a generation and giving in to spoiled brats’ laziness.” Do you think starting school later would make a difference for your teen?

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  1. judy olsen December 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    My 14 year old had to be at the bus stop at 6:15 last year. This year it’s 6:30. We start school at 7:30 for middle and high school. 8:30 for elementary. My teen is constantly tired and frequently naps when she gets home which in turn, creates a vicious cycle. She comes home starving and cranky every day. She is not lazy–she is a straight A student who is active in all kinds of things outside of school.

    One area that seems to have been left out in this argument is that early start times mess with a teenager’s eating habits as well. My daughter will eat breakfast at school at about 7:45 because she tries to get as much sleep as possible and doesn’t want to get up early enough to eat before school. She gets up at 5:50 am as it is. She eats lunch at 10:30 in the morning. She rarely eats a full meal because she has just had breakfast! By the time she gets home at 3:15 she is starving and will have a huge snack and then doesn’t want any dinner.

    I absolutely, positively think later start times would make a difference in my teen. Many differences, in fact.

    The subject has been brought up in our county and our superintendent is not against it but the fight with the public and the lack of funds makes it daunting. I get it. Change is hard for many. But, we always adjust and things end up mostly just fine. It’s going to take a national mandate for it it happen here, unfortunately.

  2. cjsmiles December 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    I am supportive of teenagers in Jr High and High school starting later. Even a half hour would be helpful. There are several reasons I could see this change being helpful.

    Our mornings are so chaotic having to get my daughter up and drive her to school (because city buses are our only transportation) and then return home and get myself to work by 8:30 am. If she started 30 minutes later we could all ride together and save time in the morning to get a bit of extra sleep.

    Another side is the fact of how late teen are staying up and not because they don’t have bedtimes. Teens are so active with jobs, sports, caring for other siblings and homework that they are don’t even get home until 10 pm or sometimes later and they still need to shower and plan for the next day. Free time after school turns into nap time because they are so tired from their early morning routine.

    When the kids begin school at 7:30 in the morning and get out at 2:30 it leaves them home unattended for several hours before working parents are home. This is another reason to start later. The negative side of it is kids coming home and sleeping, they sit in front of the TV, binge until dinner, or get involved with unsupervised situations. A later schedule would lessen the time alone and keep them on the rest of the family’s routine.

  3. Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. December 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Judy Olsen’s point about the need for a national mandate (and, actually all the comments above about the forces working together against our teens) is precisely what led me to create the national petition (http://bit.ly/tWa4dS ). I generally prefer education issues to be worked out locally, but after working for over a decade in my county school system to no avail, I came to realize that in most cases politics, money, and myth end up killing any possibility of change, even when administrators accept the ever-mounting evidence of the damage we’re doing to our kids and our communities. As we all know, however (except the people who react to this issue emotionally, because sleep IS an emotional, moral issue for many Americans), the research is clear that this is a matter of health, safety, and equity as much as education, and on these matters it’s occasionally necessary for someone to draw the line from on high. That’s why the petition argues for a minimum earliest start time, which should make it considerably easier for local schools to set schedules in the kids’ best interests. It’s too late for my own children, but I’m devoting myself to this cause because I think it’s negligent to subject yet another generation to a situation that I think we’ll someday come to see as akin to child abuse. The research is now compelling enough, and the power of social media strong enough, that we at last have a chance to effect change through collective action on a national scale. Check our website StartSchoolLater.net to see what you can do to help, and, yes, please sign the petition. When we hit 5000 names, we’ll bring it to DC personally and try to get this issue on the national radar screen.


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