Just 5 more minutes, Mom!
Why starting school later makes a lot of sense for teenagers, but might be tough to make a reality
CASTLE ROCK - We all have those days when it’s hard to get up in the morning. Whether you’re an adult or a student, waking up early can be hard. It is doubly hard to get to school at 7:30 a.m. in the dead of winter when it is cold and the sun hasn’t quite risen yet.
It, then, is no surprise that the start time of schools is one of the biggest complaints that I hear as I talk to students from my school and others across the District. In fact, we recently conducted a poll on the MyDCSD Twitter account and 62 percent of students polled said they’d like to move the start time later. So, this week during our 5 Questions in 5 Days, we are focusing on this issue.
Q: What does science say about students and sleep? Is there a benefit to starting the school day later?
A: Yes, scientific studies show that sleep patterns change during teenage years-- pushing teens to stay up later at night and sleep later into the morning.
“Biological research shows that circadian rhythms shift during the teen years, pushing boys and girls to stay up later at night and sleep later into the morning. The phase shift, driven by a change in melatonin in the brain, begins around age 13, gets stronger by ages 15 and 16, and peaks at ages 17, 18 or 19,” explained Mark Fischetti in the 2014 Scientific American article “School Starts Too Early.”
“Research in the 1990s found that later sleep and wake patterns among adolescents are biologically determined; the natural tendency for teenagers is to stay up late at night and wake up later in the morning. This research indicates that school bells that ring as early as 7:00 a.m. in many parts of the country stand in stark contrast with adolescents' sleep patterns and needs,” said the National Sleep Foundation in its article “School Start Time and Sleep.”
According to the non-profit organization, Start School Later, shifting middle and high schools to later in the morning can be cost effective and have significant helath and wellness benefits for students..
"Brookings Institution economists estimate a benefit-to-cost ratio of at least nine-to-one and report that improved performance is equivalent to two extra months in school. Lifetime earnings increase. Many school divisions have made the change at no cost. Some have saved money on transportation and others have found low-cost options to implement this positive change. Students with later morning start times GAIN sleep. Adequate sleep improves learning, memory, mood, and performance in school, athletics and other extracurricular activities. Adolescents in districts with later high school start times have fewer teen car crashes (driving drowsy is like driving drunk). Districts with later high school start times have less depression and a decreased need for medications to treat depression. Attendance improves, and more students graduate," Start School Later said in its brochure "School Hours and Sleep Deprivation: A Public Health Epidemic."
More studies and information:
Start School Later
Q: If teens’ brains work better later in the day, why not start school later?
A: Legend does and Ponderosa is planning to push back its start time next year.
Several years ago, Legend High School (LHS) opened with a later, 7:55 a.m., start time and next year Ponderosa is planning to move its start times to 8 a.m.
“By making minor adjustments to create a later start time, you get a lot of excitement from kids and even teachers. An 8 o’clock start time is something that a lot of people would support,” DCSD Director of High Schools Corey Wise said. “If you look at drastically later starts, however, it can get very complicated.”
Additionally, Wise says that DCSD believes in student and parental choice. Especially as an upper classman, high school students can choose to schedule their off-periods early, creating a much later start time -- if that fits their needs. Some students, however, may choose to go to school even earlier, which is why schools offer a 0 hour, for those interested. Finally, if a student prefers a completely different experience, a family can choose less traditional DCSD options like eDCSD: The Colorado Cyber School or our night school, Eagle Academy.
Q: Why can’t we push the time back further-- say 9 a.m. or noon?
A: There are many considerations -- impact on other schools, bussing, sports...
It’s pretty simple, as a school’s start time is pushed back, the end time is pushed back and so is everything else that is scheduled around the school.
While slight adjustments, like Legend’s half-hour later start time can be worked out relatively easily, the story is different if you want to start school at 9 a.m. or later.
Elementary schools are scheduled to start between 8:20 and 9:10, which means that busses aren’t available. Additionally you want to avoid stacking start times because of the traffic impact. Often our schools aren’t very far from each other, so there would be a lot of congestion if elementary parents and teenage drivers were both trying to get to their respective schools at the same time.
Some school districts have considered swapping elementary and high school start times, because younger students do not have the same challenges when it comes to circadian rhythms. As parents can tell you, young children wake up early and are alert and ready for play and learning.
“Flipping the order would bring high schoolers to class later and benefit their little sisters and brothers; other studies show that young children are more awake and more ready to learn earlier in the morning.
The trouble, especially during Colorado winters, is safety. It can be dangerous to have young children walking to school before sunrise.
“Parents do not want young children out at a bus stop in the darkness and cold in the winter,” Wise said. “We have to think about their safety and so this isn’t the best option.”
Q: If school start times are pushed back, what does that mean for performing arts, athletics, clubs, etc.?
A: Again, the later the start time, the later that extra-curricular activities will start. This isn’t always feasible-- especially when it comes to swimming and marching band.
“The later the school day, the later they get out,” explained DCSD Director of Athletics, Activities and Alternative Education Derek Chaney. “If you don’t get out until 4 p.m. and then you go to a game or a practice—then you’re home later, eating dinner later. Then you’re up later in the night doing homework and everything else.”
The alternative for some sports might be moving practices to the morning.
“That is probably defeating the purpose of having a later start time, because students would need to get up early,” Chaney said.
Of course, the morning or later in the evening aren’t really possible for certain activities like marching band.
“Marching bands are as big as football programs and just as important,” explained Wise. “If you were to change the times that they practice and you get into darkness, which is not preferable. And, of course it is not feasible to be out there early in the morning, because you will wake the neighbors.”
Additionally, some DCSD teams, including swimming, ice hockey and gymnastics depend on other facilities for practices and games. A later start time for practices and meets may not be possible at many of those facilities.
The bigger issue comes when you consider that changing times would need to be sorted out with the Colorado High School Activities Association, other districts and schools that our teams play.
Chaney and Wise say the entire situation would be easier if all schools across the state decided to move high schools to a later schedule, but that is unlikely.
Q: Would dramatically changing school start times solve the problem of students feeling sleepy at school?
A: Not necessarily. While shifting the start time a bit later does appear to have a lot of benefits, it is not a cure all.
Even if school schedules are changed, there are many reasons students may still come to school sleepy-eyed, including their dependence on tech devices to overcommitment to activities or age-old procrastination.
“The roots of the problem include poor teen sleep habits that do not allow for enough hours of quality sleep; hectic schedules with afterschool activities and jobs, homework hours and family obligations; and a clash between societal demands, such as early school start times , and biological changes that put most teens on a later sleep-wake clock,” explained the National Sleep Foundation’s article.
Lately, more and more studies have shed light on concerns about the blue light emitted from our smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Screens – found on computers, cellphones and TVs – emit blue light that is found in the light spectrum present during daytime hours. Acting as artificial sunlight, blue light decreases your production of melatonin, the powerhouse hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Eliminating screen time before sleep time restores your 40 winks to uninterrupted snoozy bliss.
iKEEPSAFE’s article “No Screen Time Before Bed.”
“One of the most simple but important reasons technology affects our sleep is cognitive stimulation,” says Mark Rosekind, PhD, former director of the Fatigue Countermeasures Program at the NASA Ames Research Center and president and chief scientist at the scientific consulting firm Alertness Solutions. As your brain revs up, its electrical activity increases and neurons start to race -- the exact opposite of what should be happening before sleep. A second reason has to do with your body: The physical act of responding to a video game or even an email makes your body tense, explains Rosekind. As you get stressed, your body can go into a “fight or flight” response, and as a result, cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is released, creating a situation hardly conducive to sleep.
That “glow” from electronics is also at work against quality shuteye. The small amounts of light from these devices pass through the retina into a part of the hypothalamus (the area of the brain that controls several sleep activities) and delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.
WebMD: Power Down for Better Sleep
The key to good rest? Turn off all the gadgets and tune out.
In conclusion, studies show that later school start times may offer beneifts to students for a number of reasons, including attentiveness in school, increased safety and mental health.
Additionally, small shifts to schedule (8 a.m. start times, for instance) appear to be possible without significant impacts. More drastic changes to start times come with more significant impacts, which may be resolved, but may take significant coordination within and outside of the District.
Douglas County School District believes in site autonomy, empowering school leaders to make changes based on the need of their communities. Students interested in this topic may wish to share their thoughts with their school administrators.
Editors Note: Every day this week, we will add new Q and A's. Over the course of the week we will discuss the potential challenges of moving middle and high school start times later.
Story written by DCSD Student Reporter Brad Cooley, a junior at Douglas County High School.