Get Some Sleep: School start times
September 13th, 2011
01:53 PM ET

Get Some Sleep: School start times

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs regularly on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.

I want to follow up on a piece I wrote two weeks ago about getting kids back on a good sleep schedule.

School was just starting and each year most children need to get out of the summer mode and back to a sleep/wake cycle that allows them to thrive during the school year. Now that most kids and teens are back to school, I would like to address another important topic that I wish educators would give some attention: School start times.

Most school districts in the United States schedule their start times for elementary, middle school and high school students according to notions that are contrary to established sleep medicine principles.

That is, the districts have the teens going to school the earliest and the elementary kids starting the latest whereas the opposite should be the case if we are to acknowledge that at different ages, children have different circadian tendencies.

"Circadian" refers to the 24 hour cycle. Elementary school children are usually early to bed, early to rise. Most would have no problem starting school at 7:30 a.m.

Then, around the time of puberty, teens start staying up later. This is due partly to parents allowing them more freedom to choose their own bedtimes and due to more homework and after school activities.

Yet, there is also a biological change, a circadian shift, that occurs in most teens and makes it nearly impossible for them to go to sleep before 10 p.m. In fact, many teens can’t get to sleep before midnight and some don’t feel sleepy until 2 a.m. or later. Now if we keep in mind that teenagers still need more sleep than adults, approximately to 9 1/2 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, in order to feel alert throughout the day, then we can see that having high school start at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. is a set up for sleep deprivation.

Why do they have school start times turned around like this? One explanation that I have heard is that educators do not want the young children standing in the dark in winter waiting for the school bus. Can this be it? For how many children would that be the case, I wonder.

The other explanation, more plausible in my mind, is that high school students need to start early so they can finish early so that after-school sports can begin, and still allow the coaches/teachers to get home at a decent hour. Perhaps it is time to put scholastics and sleep ahead of sports.

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soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Todd

    I think a reason for the times is it is easier for the parents.
    Their Little ones Go to school from 8:30 and back at 4:30. You can drop off the child on your way to work be there until the bus gets there. Then you work your 9-5 shift and paying a baby sitter (often a teenager) for an hour or so of baby sitting. The Baby Sitter who may still go to school can get to your house before your child. Problem solved. If you flip it to the more natural way. Then you have about 2-3 hours before you get home, and you need to get a baby sitter for more hours a day. And it cannot be a teenager who needs some extra money as they are still in school.
    Growing up the school I went two had 3 schedules High School started at 7:30-2:00, Middle School 8:30-3:00 and Elementary School at 9:30-4:00. By the time the student is in middle school they are old enough to be alone for 2 hours or so. So it really solves the problem of child care for the youngest group.

    September 13, 2011 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. OMAC

    It has a lot to do with bus schedules. The buses that run your 1st graders to school are the same ones that run your 12th graders to school. In order to have an effective school day the higher grades start early. The high-schoolers are picked up first and then dropped off, and then the same routes are driven for middle-schoolers and finally elementary schoolers. Then the process is reversed at the end of the day. It would be logistically impossible to start all the schools at the same time.

    September 13, 2011 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dom625

      The district that my sons are in buses all students together. All of the schools are on the same campus so the buses are going to the same place anyway. High school students sit in the back; middle school in the middle; elementary school up front. The elementary kids are dropped off first; then the bus loops back around to the middle school building to let them off; and finally, the high school kids get dropped off. Although the district is large, this system works pretty well.

      September 13, 2011 at 15:35 | Report abuse |
  3. BadBob

    Actually, there are three primary reasons why the vast majority of high schools start the earliest. 1) To allow teenagers to work because 15% of Americans are POOR and many kids MUST work to help their families. 2) To allow for participation in sports and other activities. 3) Because parents and business owners would lose their ever freaking minds and defeat every school board member who starts high school at the right times (probably 9 a.m. or even later). I don't disagree that starting later would be better for academics. But the blame rests with the citizens in this democracy and not the schools. NOTE: most private high schools also start very early even though for many more of those students work is not MANDATORY the way it is for so many other teenagers.

    September 13, 2011 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. LivinginVA

    Around here, our elementary school starts at 7:55, the middle school at 8:25 and the high school at 9:00 (and gets out at 3:48). Teenagers who get jobs start at 5, sports practices run until 6:00 – we all survive. Granted the "child care for elementary kids" thing is mildly annoying, but not really that much worse than figuring out before school care if it started later.

    September 13, 2011 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. WWRRD

    Teens will sleep if you make them run and get exercise and not eat late in the evenings. They need to learn how to manage their lives. That means knowing you need to get to bed early if you need to be up at work early.

    Stop pandering to them and teaching them that society will adjust to what they prefer. It doesn't work in the real world.

    September 13, 2011 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kait

      My parents, like you, thought they could just "make us" sleep. I laid in bed every night from 10pm until usually around 2am before I could physiologically sleep. I TRIED... it never worked. I constantly fell asleep in high school. Not to mention that half the time, my job had me working until 11pm or later. Teenagers are very different creatures than little kids by nature. There is no "make them sleep". For the record, I still (10 years since graduation) don't fall asleep until early in the morning, even if I try.

      September 13, 2011 at 16:37 | Report abuse |
    • Becky

      That is completely true. When I was in High school I worked by but off and stayed up late many times to finish home work. and in college I pulled many all nighters. Maybe I needed to manage my time a little better but it is also important to take breaks and have a little fun. As a teacher I have students falling asleep in class not because its not exciting but because they were trying to be good students and finish their work on time.
      Do I think society catering to students wants? Yes they seem to cater to more of their wants not needs.

      October 16, 2011 at 23:17 | Report abuse |
  6. Zhaylin

    Todd, that's how it was for me. I grew up in Pensacola, FL but I now live in WV. Here, all grades/school runs the same hours- the exception being "Head Start".
    I've always explained it to my kids the way you did, though. I'm at a SAHM, but for many people, I imagine their work schedules are typically 9-5 so having school set up the way it is helps those parents.
    I never even considered sports could play a role.

    September 13, 2011 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. dn

    Studies show that adolescents who start school later perform better academically, have significantly fewer car accidents, report less depression and greater motivation, experience fewer health difficulties, are less likely to be tardy or truant, and demonstrate “better performance in attention level, impulsivity, and rate of performance.”

    September 13, 2011 at 16:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lisa

      Teach these kids how to eat better for their bodies, exercise right for their bodies, etc...then I'm pretty sure they would be tired at a "normal" time and would sleep well. We have to STOP the majority of students from letting them sit on their butts all evening playing on the computer/video games. No wonder they aren't tired....they haven't done crap all day.

      September 13, 2011 at 22:26 | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      ...I didn't mean to put my comment as a replay to yours...woops 🙂

      September 13, 2011 at 22:28 | Report abuse |
  8. nilka

    i think this is totally right being a teen myself i know what its like to dose off in class because im so tired and i think every other teen would agree

    September 13, 2011 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. gabo11

    where is the publication from

    September 13, 2011 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dana

    I feel the same way about 8am meetings. I am physically there, but my brain is not. It makes a huge difference if I need to be somewhere at 8am versus 9am...strange but true. There is something about setting the clock for 6am-ish that messes me up. I think kids and parents would benefit from a 9:00-5pm schedule. This would allow parents to pick up their kids after work and allow families some additional time in the morning.

    September 13, 2011 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Ella

    The only reason teens wake up later is because they go to bed later since they are doing more fun and social things at night. It's not because nature made teenagers in a way that only allows them to fall asleep in the early morning. They still get tired like the rest of us. If they woke up earlier, weren't doing things so late (out with friends, watching tv, etc) then they'd get tired and go to bed. Period.

    September 13, 2011 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MOWMOW

      Actually, teens do go to bed later naturally. Children's brains are wired in such a way where melotonin (sleep hormone) is released around 9:30. Older kids are wired so melotonin is released at around 11 to 11:30. Learn the facts before you post senseless comments.

      September 13, 2011 at 19:53 | Report abuse |
  12. Joe

    Yeah, like that's going to happen! Sports second to education? Gimme a break.

    September 13, 2011 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Andrea

    It's a safety issue as well. You don't want younger kids waiting for a bus in the dark early hours..

    September 13, 2011 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Niyaz

      I applaud your foray into this pulibc space. Examples like this: of instructional leaders within the HWDSB modelling and sharing in a forum authentic to the digital reality our students live daily, are empowering for both the teachers in the classroom, and the teachers in the system charged with helping our students become fluent in the 21st century skills necessary to meet with success.I believe that it is through this engaging exchange of ideas, and the on-demand learning that tools like blogs provide for our always on students, that will inspire the enthusiasm necessary to respond with more vigor to the daily question: how was your day @ school?

      September 11, 2012 at 10:37 | Report abuse |
    • Emine

      Great question from my expiceenre from workting with thousands of students, these tips work with just about everyone. In fact, some of my biggest successes have come from students who were diagnosed with learning disabilities. These folks often need to be even more structured and have been better habits once even some small changes are made, big changes can occur. Good luck and NEVER NEVER give up. I struggled at every level, and once I learned a few techniques, everything changed.

      September 13, 2012 at 23:01 | Report abuse |
  14. jlm

    Ours is the schedule recommended in the article, sort of. Elementary goes from 7:55-2:30, Middle goes from 9:10-4:15, and High goes from 8:30-3:30.

    September 13, 2011 at 22:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Lisa

    Two years ago our school district started staggered start times...K-4 and High School begin at 9am while 5-9 begin at 8am. I understand what the research says. However, pushing back the start time for high school only allows them to stay up EVEN LATER. The STUDENTS don't care!!! So instead of staying up until 1 or 2am they stay up until 3 or 4. They are still getting the SAME AMOUNT of sleep they did before their start time was pushed back!

    September 13, 2011 at 22:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • A.J.

      9:30am-4 or 4:30pm is the recommended time for schools to start and finish. That way the students can wake up at 8 am.

      January 23, 2012 at 01:59 | Report abuse |
  16. Daniel

    I'm in high school, and my district is the way the article recommends.

    Elementary school is 7:50-2:25, Middle school is 8:50-4:00, and high school is 8:30-3:20. After school ends, I have cross-country practice every day until between 5 and 5:30 (it used to end at about 6).

    September 13, 2011 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Denise

    Yes Lisa Thank You!...Teens need more sleep......still educators will never listen to good sense........forget about lunches can't even...break thru on that one!.... ....

    September 13, 2011 at 23:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. 900

    I fell asleep in the middle of this article cause it was so boring, not because of a lack of sleep.

    September 14, 2011 at 01:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Jennifer

    Based on what I remember of my elementary school's start and end times, if it had started at 7:30 am, it would have ended at 2 pm. What are working parents supposed to do with that schedule? You can argue that it's better sleep-wise, but it would amount to 90% of children having to spend several hours a day with a baby-sitter or in daycare, and fewer waking hours in the care of their parents. I think the harms of that would outweigh the benefits.

    As for teenagers, do you think a teen who stays up later than they should and is too tired to start school at am is going to be fine if the start time is pushed back to 9? The end time will be an hour later, too, so he'll get home an hour later. Then he'll stay up an hour later, because otherwise, he would have an hour less free time to do whatever was so important to him to be worth staying up late for in the first place. The actual start time is irrelevant in that situation.

    September 14, 2011 at 03:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Yatin J Patel MD MBA

    Recent studies have shown reduced driving accidents and better learning with later school start times. More at http://sleepwellleadwell.com/2011/04/26/delay-school-start-save-a-teen/

    September 14, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Michelle L.

    Sleep Is important. No it's more than important its a necessity. Whit out sleep there is no possible way of us surviving. Imagine if we were up 24/7. One we wouldn't be able to properly run. We would probably get "tired" of everyone and every thing around us. So it is especially important for kids who need to keep there mind going. I agree with Lisa Shives

    October 6, 2011 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Loo the sleep expert

    You think 9 hours is enough? When I was a kid, after a long day of maths questions bombarding and physical activity, I slept for 12 hours straight. I knew I deserved that: http://www.whysleep.org/sleep-a-childs-best-friend/

    October 15, 2011 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Carla

    Teenagers REQUIRE more sleep, especially growing young men like my teenage brother. I was sleepy every day back in High School no matter what I did the day before, no matter how I ate. Not enough sleep, too much sleep, STILL TIRED. They changed school times to a later date, buses ran backwards for the younger ages, and it all works out. I also agree that teens should be learning how to manage their life, balancing school, work, and leisure. The education system no longer teaches business or home ec... So student are left only knowing how to take a standardized test, so we don't care about school, and would rather just sleep.

    October 18, 2011 at 07:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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