U.S. Schools start too early

Photo by jenni_froedrick

That title could be taken two ways: we shouldn’t start kids in school as young as we do; or we shouldn’t start the school day as early as we do. Both statements are completely true. Here I would like to address the latter claim and take the unscientific position of disagreeing with the conclusions being reported from the sleep-cycle research (which forms the basis of the recommendation to start school later) while completely agreeing with the CDC recommendation for when school should start. I take my position based on my experience as a parent and my experience as a teenager and as an adult.

This idea is one I’ve read about before and each time I read more about it my conclusion remains the same. I’m writing today after reading this article in the Deseret News.

The research

The research used to promote this idea claims that teenagers have a biological sleep cycle that makes it difficult to go to sleep before 11pm and thus it is difficult for them to get sufficient sleep if they wake up before 8am and therefore school should start no earlier than 10am (and preferably 10:30). The research also concludes that the sleep cycle of 18-year-olds runs an hour later so they should be sleeping until 9am and starting school at 11:00 or 11:30. Parents and schools are rightly skeptical of the viability of starting school at 10:00 or later. Surprisingly, nobody seems to question the assumptions that drive the conclusions being reported from the study.

The conclusions being reported from the study are based on three assumptions: 1) that teenagers need 9 hours of sleep for their growing bodies and presumably active lifestyles; 2) that sleep cycles are based in biology rather than culture and personal habit and thus we need to work around those sleep cycles; and 3) that teenagers aren’t ready to start school until at least two hours after they wake up. The first assumption is clearly stated in the study (doctors recommend 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep for teenagers) and that one rings true in my experience. The second and third assumptions are what drive the reporting that start times of 10 or later would be optimal for teen health and neither of those assumptions are found in the study. The two hour assumption sounds iffy at best although it would seem foolish to insist on having kids start school less than an hour after they wake up but the assumption that sleep cycles are rooted in biology is simply lazy. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation in the study is that “pediatricians should counsel teens and parents about healthy sleep habits.” Presumably that would mean parents and teens should make adjustments to the sleep cycle, not that schools should start in the middle of the day.

From my own experience as a teen and adult I have had times when it was difficult to go to sleep early because I was focused on what I wanted to do in the evenings (whether that is getting projects done as an adult or hanging out/partying with friends as a teenager). I have also had times, both as an adult and as a teenager, when it was easy to go to bed at a reasonable hour to get the sufficient sleep in time to wake up early because my focus was on accomplishing the tasks of the day (school, work, projects) rather than what I would be doing in the evening. The argument that at 18 the sleep cycle gets to be an hour later is proof that it can be adjusted. If an already too late sleep cycle is getting later at 18 it’s because parents are likely to assert less control over their 18 year old than they were over their 17 year old (which is generally a reasonable assumption and generally a reasonable practice) and the 18 year old doesn’t understand the effect of adequate sleep on their overall health and well-being (which is generally a reasonable assumption but not a wise practice).

The recommendation

The AAP and the CDC both recommend that school should start no earlier than 8:30 which is a half hour or more later than most middle schools and high schools start. This doesn’t really impact the overall schedule of the day as much as parents and teens making reasonable scheduling decisions regarding their evening schedules and extracurricular activities would. What it does do is reject the American cultural propensity to cram every second of our time full as if there was no value in slowing down from time to time.

My conclusion

Every time I have read about this topic I have come away more convinced that we should make a point of slowing down and teaching our kids to do the same – to quit trying to stuff as many activities and commitments into our evening as we can imagine doing and to quit rushing our mornings in order to maximize the available time for those excessive commitments. Sometimes life is too full and too fast because of circumstances outside our control but too often our lives are too full and too fast precisely because we think that living like that is better for some reason – we fail to appreciate the value in rest, relaxation, and giving ample time and attention to a few important things over the approach of giving the minimum required time to the maximum number of things.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.

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