Fortunately, there is a simple and virtually cost-free alternative to these expensive and ineffective programs. We need to push back start times for middle and high schools. It’s as easy as that. Studies have shown that schools with later start times have increased attendance, less tardiness, and fewer disciplinary referrals to the principal’s office. Teachers report students earn better grades and are more alert in class and eager to learn.
Not only do their academics improve, but so do their personal lives. Social workers in pilot schools with later start times report fewer students seeking help for stress relief, peer relationship problems, and even difficulty with their parents.
There are multiple social improvements that studies have shown as well. When students start and end school later teenage pregnancy rates plummet, along with juvenile crime. Because adolescents are largely unsupervised from the hours of 3-6pm, it makes sense that this would be the peak time for these behaviors to occur. Children were less likely to commit crime, be victims of crime, be in or cause car accidents, and smoke, drink, or use drugs when their school changed it’s hours.
Districts that have implemented this change have also found health benefits for their students. Adolescents have a reduced risk of metabolic and nutritional deficits, including lower levels of obesity when they get an adequate amount of sleep.
Critics of pushing back school start times cite sports as their main argument. If school begins later, it obviously will end later. This interferes with the various sports practices that occur after school lets out. However, when the majority of students are not participating at any given time, it seems counterintuitive to punish all students for the convenience of a few athletes.
Other potential negative effects associated with later start times include a disruption in transportation. The current system has elementary students beginning their day later, regardless of the fact that they have more brain activity in the morning. To accommodate later start times for teenagers, elementary classes would begin earlier. This would easily address transportation issues by simply switching schedules.
While it is important to acknowledge the possible undesirable effects of pushing back school start times, we are also faced with the issue of student sleep deprivation and its extremely harmful effect on our children.
Students are living in what Dr. Mary Carskadon has referred to as a continuous state of jet lag, and it simply cannot continue. We are failing our students, and with a solution as easily implementable as this, it is our responsibility to allow our students to function at their best.
It is up to you to make a change, so don’t sleep on it; contact your local school district’s superintendent and let them know how the benefits of later start times for middle and high school students greatly outweigh the costs.
By coordinating the school clock with student’s internal clocks, we can address academic underachievement, mental health concerns, and student safety in a truly effective and cost-free way.
Hillary Sullins, MSW Candidate -University of Michigan