In his first post, Hampton Tutors senior coach David Westwood discusses research on sleep in adolescents and the Seattle School District’s recent implementation of delayed school start times
Schoolchildren of all ages have been obliged to follow early schedules for decades, with the first bell usually ringing shortly after or shortly before 8:00 a.m. throughout the country. This was not the case, however, when public education became institutionalized in the United States in the 19th century. During that period, public schools began the day at 9 o’clock, coinciding with the start of the canonical work day. Based on research and, undoubtedly, countless incidences of bags under students’ eyes, there is growing support for a return to later starts of the school day. In 2016, Seattle led the way by pushing its public schools’ first bells from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. and the results of this experimental policy are beginning to stream in.
Delaying school start times became a topic of national discussion in 2014, when the American Association of Pediatrics released a statement calling for “efforts of school districts to optimize sleep in students and [urging] high schools and middle schools to aim for start times that allow students the opportunity to achieve optimal levels of sleep (8.5–9.5 hours) and to improve physical (e.g., reduced obesity risk) and mental (e.g., lower rates of depression) health, safety (e.g., drowsy driving crashes), academic performance, and quality of life.” The AAP made these suggestions in light of studies on the effects of adolescence on circadian rhythms. They cite two critical biological changes that occur during these years: nighttime melatonin release is delayed by a couple of hours in adolescents compared to younger schoolchildren and adolescents experience less of a drive to sleep versus preadolescent individuals. Regarding the former factor, a 2008 paper by Frey et al. in PLoS ONE demonstrated that many children change from morning people to night owls while going through puberty, which they linked to melatonin—it is simply easier to fall asleep if there are heightened levels of melatonin coursing through one’s system. Teens also experience a slower onset of fatigue compared to younger individuals, as shown by increased “time to fall asleep after being awake for 14.5 to 18.5 hours in postpubertal versus prepubertal teenagers.” Nevertheless, the optimal number of hours of sleep, which ranges from 8.5 to 9.5 hours, does not change as children grow older, suggesting that standard bell schedules will result in a net decrease in resting hours.
After the Seattle School District heeded the AAP recommendations and delayed its first bells, scientists at the University of Washington and the Salk Institute analyzed the effects of the altered schedule on student health. Two groups of students were established: one drawn from first period biology classes at Roosevelt High School and Franklin High School in 2016 and another drawn from “the same grade, classes, and schools and during the same time of the year but in 2017, when the new school start time had been in effect for 7 months.” Students made daily entries in online diaries, took mood assessments, and recorded their grades over the course of the study, after which the data were effectively normalized for preexisting sleep disorders, physically-demanding extracurricular activities, sex, race, and commute time. The study found that the delayed first bell resulted in a median increase of 34 minutes of sleep and a 4.5% increase in students’ median grades. Attendance also improved.
As education research advances and as pedagogical techniques focus more on the needs of students as individuals, there is hope that school districts will implement later bell schedules for the benefit of their students. Longer periods of sleep result in more attentive students, better absorption of material, and fewer bags under eyes.