FAQs on School Start Time
Based upon the experience of districts that have moved to later start times to improve the health and well-being of teen students, schools are capable of finding solutions to the frequently cited problems. The following is a review of these issues:
While it would help parent schedules to have all schools in a district start at the same time, this is often not possible. Having a tiered busing system, in which the same buses can be used for two or three routes, significantly reduces the financial burden on schools. In order to allow their teenagers to start later, Alexandria, Buffalo/Hanover/Montrose and Wayzata school districts modified their bus schedules in a cost-neutral basis. The typical strategy used involves flipping middle and high school start times with the elementary school start times. This allows districts to use the same number of buses for no additional cost.
A recent study from RAND shows Minnesota could see an economic benefit of $188 million after just 2 years from pushing school start times later. Within a two-year time period, for every dollar spent, there would be between $0.78 and $1.22 return on investment so within three years, the state more than breaks even and starts to have benefits. Two main factors contributing to that gain: improved academic performance which lead to increased student graduation rates and potential lifetime earnings along with a reduction in car crashes due to teenage drowsy driving. The reported economic benefits from delaying school start times could be even higher, as other issues related to insufficient sleep, including mental health issues and obesity, were not considered in this study.
Effect on elementary students if bus routes are flipped
Younger children are biologically wired to wake up earlier, and have more energy for learning in the early part of the day. In fact, core curriculum classes like math and reading are most often held during the first part of the day for this reason. Teachers in schools, where elementary age students arrive earlier, after start times are adjusted, report a more ideal paced morning. They have more time to teach before scheduled lunch time activities. Younger children, like adults have more malleable sleep schedules. Teenagers on the other hand, have less flexibility due to a biologic delay in their sleep rhythm, causing them to sleep best between the hours of 10:45 pm to 8 am.
Why 8:30 am for teenagers to start school, isn’t 8:00 am good enough?
Data on schools that moved their start times to 8 a.m. rather than 8:30 a.m. or later, revealed less robust results. Mahtomedi, South Washington and St Louis Park schools took part in this research. In schools with an earlier school start time, less than half of the students were able to obtain 8 hours of sleep or more. This amount of sleep is the “tipping point” needed as research reveals clear benefits for students who obtain 8 hours of sleep or more with respect to less depression and reducing high risk behavior including substance use like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. The American Academy of Pediatrics, and numerous other medical organizations recommend a start time of 8:30 am or later for both middle and high school students. However, 87% of the high schools in Minnesota start before 8:30am, impacting over 200,000 teenagers. This figure greatly underestimates the number of students affected as there are thousands of middle school students who would also benefit from later start times.
Childcare before and after school
Adjusting to an earlier school start time for elementary students will benefit some families who require childcare services in the morning hours. Although, it will increase the need for childcare services after school for others. This is an inescapable reality in those districts where ‘flipping’ the bus schedule is the only reasonable fiscal choice. Childcare administrators have been able to find ways to adjust their staffing to accommodate this shift in need.
Athletics & Extracurricular Activities
The coaches and leaders of extracurricular activities in the districts that have changed to later school start times have reported that they have been able to successfully modify their practice times to accommodate the new schedule. Some schools allow for selective scheduling to accommodate the student’s periodic need to leave early for activities or games. Other schools put the responsibility of the course work on the students as they are choosing to be in the activity or sport, and therefore take on the responsibilities of doing so. These schools have shown both later start times and after-school activities can co-exist successfully. In fact, coaches are appreciating the competitive edge a good night sleep can provide as players are more “on their game.” Team members demonstrate improved performance, remember plays better and are more alert, leading to fewer injuries.
Adjusting school start times in my district will take a lot of time and effort. Is it really worth it?
Yes. Three decades of worldwide, indisputable evidence on adolescent sleep rhythms, sleep loss and the effect of later school start times reveals: better academic performance, improved graduation rates; less depression, substance use, tardiness, obesity and car accidents.
With a later school start time for middle school and high school students, won’t kids just stay up later at night?
Contrary to fears and expectations, there is evidence that students will obtain more sleep when school start time is shifted later. In addition to the amount of sleep, the timing of sleep is important as well. Students are better off when they sleep at a time that is in line with their circadian rhythm.
Wouldn’t teens get more sleep if parents just made them go to bed earlier and take away TV and cell phone access?
While good parenting includes limiting access to TV and cell phones in the evening, along with setting and enforcing bedtimes, that’s not good enough. Science reveals teenagers have a biological shift in their sleep cycle that is due to developmental changes which actually signal the brain to feel sleepy later. Thus, teens can have a difficult time falling asleep before about 10:45 p.m. and the brain remains in the sleep mode until about 8 a.m.
How about waiting to adjust school start times when we are closing or opening a school or need to change the bus schedule for another reason?
Waiting only delays student benefits. Sleep is essential for life and needs to be viewed as a basic biologic imperative, like the need to eat or use the bathroom. Policy and practice changes need to be adopted to allow teenagers the right amount of sleep (8-10 hours) at the right time (10:45 p.m. – 8:00 a.m.) to feel well rested, successful and healthy.
My child is very busy with sports and other extracurricular activities, plus hours of homework each night. How are we supposed to fit it all in if there is less time in the evening?
Parents want children to “do well” and “be well.” Both extracurricular activities and sleep are important. Finding the right balance between these two can sometimes be a challenge. If a child is overscheduled, they may have trouble keeping up with homework, feel tired, anxious, depressed or frequently complain of headaches or stomach aches which can be a sign of stress. Make sure your child has time for meals and to obtain the right amount of sleep. Allow for down-time and staying connected as a family.
Are there many school districts in Minnesota considering the switch?
Yes. A growing number of large districts in the state have identified ways to overcome common concerns by communicating with parents and community members about busing, extracurricular activities, including athletics, and adjusting elementary age start times if needed. They have overcome barriers to positively impact the health and well-being of their students.
I would like to know more about sleep and the topic of moving school start times to see the research for myself. Where can I go to learn more?
Minnesota Sleep Society Teen Sleep Loss Toolkit www.mnsleep.net -Minnesota based sleep specialists and researchers have created a toolkit linking basic sleep biology to the evidence on the effects of later start times for teenagers, for the purpose of community education. There is also local information including which schools in the state have moved to a later start time and which ones are considering doing the same to improve the health, safety and performance of the teenagers in our state.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) www.sleepeducation.org– a professional society comprised of clinicians, scientists and other healthcare professionals. They serve as a leading voice in the sleep field. They set standards and promote excellence in sleep medicine health care, education and research. The AASM public education website is full of information on sleep and sleep disorders for all ages, including teenagers.
The National Sleep Foundation www.sleepfoundation.org – an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety through public understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, and by supporting public education, sleep-related research, and advocacy.
Start School Later www.startschoollater.net – an advocacy group of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students and other concerned citizens working to ensure that all public schools can set hours compatible with health, safety, equity and learning. The site offers educational materials and links to numerous articles and research. They also serve as a centralized launching pad for local chapters who are advocating for later start times in their regions and communities.