- Districts across the country are beginning to implement later start times in response to studies showing adolescents need more sleep and that their sleep cycles change as they get older, and a new paper published in the Journal of School Health by researchers at Child Trends suggests that while districts have largely been pushing back start times in high schools, middle school students could also benefit.
- The researchers examined a district in which some 7th- and 8th-graders attended schools starting at 8 a.m. and others attended schools starting at 7:23 a.m. While both groups of schools started earlier than the recommended time of 8:30 a.m., those with later start times slept an additional 17 minutes per night and reported on a survey that they were less likely to get drowsy during the day.
- Lead author Deborah Temkin suggested that the gains in sleep "could have significant positive implications for these students” but added that more research is needed to understand longterm impacts. The authors also note that some districts have moved middle school start times earlier to accommodate later times for high school students, stressing that middle school students “should not be left out of the conversation around school start times.”
Start times are an issue that requires the collaboration of many, if not all, district departments — transportation, instruction, athletics, nutrition, and before- and after-school programs, including those run by community-based organizations. Parents commuting to work in the morning are also affected if their child’s schedule changes significantly.
From a health standpoint, however, the researchers note the middle school years are an important time to prevent negative outcomes and that sleep is linked to both academic success and problematic behaviors, such delinquency and substance use. A recent study from Singapore, conducted in an all-girls, 7th through 10th grade school, also showed that when schools moved start times later, the students’ moods improved and they reported less depression.
But research is often not enough to convince all those affected that such a major change is needed, officials from the Cherry Creek School District near Denver, CO, write in a case study featured on the website of Start School Later, an advocacy group that provides resources for district and school leaders. Moving start times later in Cherry Creek, where high school was starting as early as 7:10 a.m., was an 18-month process that included in-person meetings and a large-scale community survey. Ultimately, the school board decided to start elementary schools at 8 a.m., middle schools at 8:50 a.m. and high school at 8:20 a.m. — times that were close to American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations, but that obviously couldn’t make everyone happy.
One of the lessons learned, the district leaders write, is that “flexibility (and a sense of humor) is critical. Although there was a steadfast goal of working to change school start times, it was essential to be flexible in what this change would look like. Our community is large and diverse, and a significant amount of time was spent understanding the different needs of all community members.”