As teens nestle into their deep, unrestricted summer sleep, let’s think clearly about setting them up for success in the upcoming school years. Today there is a pressing need for our attention and our action. An opportunity to improve the lives of teens exists this upcoming week here in Seattle and I suspect, in ways, the outcome will inform the nation. The School Board is revisiting their commitment to do an analysis of feasibility & community engagement in 2015 around start times and will discuss this next week. They’ll vote July 2nd.

Nationally, there is mounting pressure to move school start times later for middle and high-schoolers due to a known health impediment: teens don’t naturally fall asleep until around 10pm and yet need 8 1/2 to 10 hours of sleep for good health. If you do the math and consider a need to eat in the morning and commute, if school starts prior to 8am it’s unlikely teens are set-up to get the rest they need.

The far majority of high schools in the US may make it impossible for teens to get necessary sleep with an average start time prior to 8am. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011 showed that 69% of U.S. high school students get fewer than 8 hours of sleep on school nights, and 40% get 6 or fewer hours.

I touched base with Dr Maida Chen, a sleep expert about why this movement matters so much. “I have to start by saying that it is impossible to place a ‘price’ on the health, safety and achievement of a child,” she told me. She mentioned she’d spent significant time this week documenting the evolving data and cost-effectiveness of moving school start times. She’s written, “Rational start times, which align with students’ fundamental sleep needs, are a cost-effective and scientifically robust approach to improve equity, opportunity gap, and academic achievement on a large-scale with the greatest positive impact on students at the most disadvantage.”  Translation: this makes sense and will affect a large amount of teens.

We should always be driven to do what is best for the child, and not what is convenient for society.  And ultimately, there’s no money that will take back the life of a child who has died in a sleepy driver related accident – a known consequence of early start times ~Dr Maida Chen

Data To Support Later School Start Times:

  • Later starts after 8:30am are aligned with the adolescent circadian rhythm (bed around 10pm)
  • Later starts lead to improved attendance and increased academic performance at school
  • Later starts improve mood (hello happiness for us all) and decreased behavioral problems
  • Later starts decrease auto accidents with teen drivers

Cost Effectiveness Of Delaying School Start Times:

  • Middle School: Dr Chen explained that the current benchmark for improving academic achievement is reducing class size. Research has found that to achieve 4% point improvement in math/reading scores by reducing class size, it would cost $2151/student per year.  In comparison, by starting middle school start times one hour later (at ~8:30 AM) it can result in a 3%tile point increase in math/reading scores.  This effect is equivalent or comparable to having gained an additional year of parental education, a known positive association with academic achievement!
  • High School: starting high school one hour later around 9am can result in an average increase in student achievement by 0.175 standard deviations, which is further increased in those at the most socioeconomic disadvantage. In addition, later starts result in about $17,500 in increased lifetime future earnings per student (at then current time).

Letting teens start school later allows for more sleep. Teens 12 and up need 8 1/2-9 1/4 hours total sleep. Any hesitation in your mind to move start times? Show support here?

“It’s not easy initially and may not be cheap,” says Dr Chen, “But how can we not provide this basic fundamental opportunity – a good night’s sleep – to our children, who are our future?”