There is a serious public health issue that is harming many high school students across our state. It may be causing them to be ill, have higher rates of depression and substance abuse, obesity, car accidents and sports injuries. It is reducing their academic performance in the classroom and on standardized tests. What is causing this crisis? Schools that start too early in the morning.
No, teens cannot just go to bed an hour earlier, this is not about bad parenting. Due to biological changes at puberty, they simply cannot fall asleep earlier. Research has shown that when start times move later, teens do not go to sleep later — instead they get more sleep. This has been demonstrated in a number of studies, including a recent report on 62, 000 teenagers around the USA reported in Scientific American. When teens have to be in school before 8:30 it is not possible for them to get enough sleep.
The effects are striking. Sleep deprivation among our teens has been linked to depression, suicide, drug and alcohol use. One study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence reported that just 1 hour less of weekday sleep was associated with significantly greater incidence of hopelessness, seriously considering suicide, suicide attempts, and alcohol and other substance use.
And moving start times later has been documented to improve not only school attendance but academic performance. A number of studies across the country have now documented improved GPA in core courses after moving start times later and two counties reported an increase in standardized test scores.
Health and safety improvements have also been demonstrated in reduced motor vehicle accidents. The peak time for teen car accidents is currently 7 a.m. After schools shifted start times later, car accident rates were reduced.
Yes, we need to be mindful of athletics. But other towns in Connecticut, such as Wilton, have already shown that this can be done successfully. And the change in start times may even by a plus to athletics. In one study of middle- and high-school student athletes in Los Angeles, researchers found that getting less than eight hours of sleep was the strongest predictor of injury. A majority of those athletes that reported less then eight hours of sleep experienced injuries leading to missed playing time and medical expenses.
Yes, we need to be mindful of expense, but this move can be made with no increase in cost if the changes are carefully planned with buses in mind. And there may be costs savings. Later start times can mean less missed school which can reduce costs of education.
Yes, there are other complications, such as after school jobs, internships or babysitting siblings.
But we all know the difference in our teens on days when school is delayed-breakfast is eaten, homework is packed and organized, the bus is easily caught, maybe even a little cheerful conversation. One local high school teacher recently remarked at the difference he sees in the classroom. On days with delayed openings his first period class is like a brand new group of students-alert, attentive, and ready to learn.
In the end it is worth a little change to increase the health, safety, academic performance and quality of life of our high school students.
Sarah Raskin, PhD, is a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Trinity College.