Later middle school start times may help young teens catch up on sleep
New review finds students with later school start times get more sleep, feel less sleepy, and are more likely to be wide awake, factors that impact cognitive health and school performance
WASHINGTON – A new review finds middle schools with later start times, 8 a.m. rather than 7:20 a.m., help seventh and eighth grade students get an average of 17 minutes more sleep each weeknight, despite going to bed 15 minutes later. This later start time helps students feel less tired and more alert during class, based on self-reporting surveys conducted during the school year.
Daniel S. Lewin, Ph.D., DABSM, CBSM, a study author and the associate director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Health System, collaborated with researchers from Child Trends, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to analyze the sleep behaviors and attentiveness of nearly 1,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students at 11 middle schools within a diverse suburban school district in the Mid-Atlantic region. This study capitalized on the opportunity to analyze different start times for seventh and eighth graders within one school district: The researchers surveyed 630 seventh- and eighth-grade students at eight late-starting middle schools and 343 seventh- and eighth-grade students from three early-starting middle schools.
Dr. Lewin and the researchers measured the impact later school start times have on student bedtimes, sleep duration, and daytime sleepiness. They chose to study these variables in middle school students since the majority of the research about school start times and academic performance concentrates on high school students. As some high schools sync their starting schedules with sleep science, corresponding middle schools may open earlier to accommodate for transportation logistics.
“Going to sleep earlier to allow for earlier start times is not possible for many teens as their biological clocks are delayed, at least relative to younger children and adults,” says Dr. Lewin. “The scientists who discovered biological clocks in virtually all cells in the body received the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Their contributions are vast. We know that when we do not go to bed and wake at optimal times there are increased risks for physical and mental health problems. Teens and even young teens who participated in this study are wired to stay up until 10- 11 p.m.”
Based on this analysis, students attending the later-starting schools receive an extra hour and 15 minutes of sleep per week, or an extra 51 hours of sleep per school year. State-level data suggest that 38-53 percent of middle school students skimp on receiving 8 hours of sleep each night, even though existing research recommends teens get 9 hours of sleep.
“Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night isn’t a luxury,” says Dr. Lewin. “Helping teens catch up on sleep is a public health priority since it’s critical to their ability to stay alert in the classroom, on the sports field, and behind the driver’s wheel, which boosts academic performance and prevents injuries.”
Dr. Lewin and the researchers cite links between teenage sleep patterns and mood, physical health outcomes, and risky behaviors, including aggression and substance use. The review also notes middle school allows a critical window for school engagement, which can set up students for academic success.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8:30 a.m. as an optimal start time for middle and high school students. This review suggests a 9:15 a.m. start time may be necessary to help middle school students meet their sleep needs. For every 2 minutes in delayed school start time, 1 minute is gained in sleep duration.
“We haven’t conducted a cost-benefit analysis to analyze how the societal benefits of later school start times may offset increased transportation costs for school districts, but we hope this research serves as a planning tool for parents, teachers, and school districts ,” notes Dr. Lewin. “As more school districts look at the data, we find parents and administrators are open to experimenting with the status quo, especially if it sets their children, our next generation, up for success.”
This review appears in the May 2018 edition of Journal of School Health, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American School Health Association. The research was supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (grants 72459 and 73364) and from the Carolina Population Center for training support (T32 HD007168) and for general support (P2C HD050924).
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