Does School Start Too Early?

Studies say later start times may help sleepy tweens' and teens' academic success – and even prevent obesity.

A 5-year-old will stand bright-eyed at the side of your bed at 5 a.m., but a 15-year-old is unmovable when it’s time to get up in the morning.

This is due to a physiological shift, says Dr. Terrill Bravender, researcher in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. And it’s one your teen has no control over.

“There is a shift in the secretion of melatonin,” which is the hormone we produce that is important in regulating sleep, he says. “It has to be secreted in order for us to actually fall asleep.”

Around puberty, however, teenagers experience a natural sleep delay of two hours. So instead of falling asleep at 9 p.m., it’s difficult to crash before 11 p.m.

Combine this with a loss of sleep drive – the actual feeling of needing to sleep – and teens are getting less shut-eye than their younger siblings.

However, “teenagers don’t need less sleep than their elementary school siblings,” Bravender says. Teens should spend nine to 10 hours in bed each night and sleep an average of 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours.

But depending on the time of year seasonally and school start times, Bravender says, most high school seniors only get about seven hours of sleep.

That’s why the American Medical Association’s newest policy encourages middle and high schools to start school at 8:30 a.m. or later.

Late starts

You’ll be hard-pressed to find that in southeast Michigan. But this school year, Ann Arbor Public Schools is starting school 15 minutes later than it did last year.

“We aligned all of our high schools so they are starting at 7:45 in the morning,” says district spokesperson Andrew Cluley. He notes it’s the only change that can be made without completely revamping the system.

“We’re hearing from some families that they do want a later start time, so this was a change that we could make within the system, so we went ahead and did it.”

To achieve this, the district had to work with partner Durham School Services to handle busing. The earliest pick-up for buses is now 6:45 or 6:50 a.m.

Transportation is a concern many districts face when it comes to delaying start times. Extracurricular activities and child care for younger siblings are also factors, Bravender says.

Ann Arbor’s change is a small step in the right direction – one Bravender feels more schools should take, with even later start times.

“I think (parents) should advocate with their principals and local school boards with data to change the start times,” Bravender says. “Changing the start time and improving kids’ sleep has been shown to improve academic performance, it has been shown to improve school attendance”– not to mention, the less sleep students get, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese.

The best sleep schedule for a teen, Bravender says, is 11 p.m.-7:30 a.m.

Good sleep hygiene

While it might be not be possible to get your school on board with a delayed start time, you can encourage what Bravender calls “good sleep hygiene,” which includes habits and practices that result in better sleep each night.

Help your child improve this by establishing a routine. It should be about the same every night. It could be as simple as “check your phone one last time, turn it off, brush your teeth, read a book and then go to sleep,” Bravender says.

Try to create a consistent bedtime, too.

“One of the traps that students get into is that they are so sleep deprived, they will sleep 14 hours on the weekend,” Bravender says. Those kids can’t get up on Monday because they slept until 2 p.m. Sunday.

Kids should not have TVs in their rooms. No homework in bed, either. Beds should only be for sleeping, Bravender says.

Avoid backlit screens for approximately 30 minutes before going to sleep. The phone should be off after that. “If you have any trouble with sleeping at all, you shouldn’t have the phone in the room,” he adds.

While you won’t be able to shift your child’s school schedule, you can help him or her have better overall sleep – and be a little more bright-eyed in the morning.


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