Five out of six middle and high schools in the United States start the day too early, which keeps students from getting the sleep they need, a new government report finds.
Middle and high schools should aim for a start time no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to help kids get enough sleep, according to a policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics last year.
But a review of U.S. Department of Education data found that slightly less than 18 percent of public middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later.
The average school start time across the nation was 8:03 a.m., according to the report published in the Aug. 7 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety and academic performance,” said lead author Anne Wheaton, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s division of population health. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”
Wheaton added that she suspects busing schedules are the leading factor in early school start times.
“For some reason, they chose to start the high school earliest, which really does fight against the biology of the high school students,” she said. “They really can’t get up early enough.”
“It’s been a couple of decades the research has been building up to support the AAP’s recommendation,” Wheaton added. “We’re hoping in the coming years we’ll see a trend going in the other direction, but it will take time.”
Teenagers need to get at least eight hours of sleep per night, but two out of three high school students fail to get their full eight hours of rest on school nights, according to the report. The proportion of students who fail to get sufficient sleep has remained steady since 2007.
Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, suffer from depression, perform poorly in school and engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking, smoking and drug use, the CDC said.
Sleep deprivation can also be a safety issue, given that many older teens are new behind the wheel, Wheaton said.
“A lot of these students are starting to drive,” she noted. “As beginning drivers, they’re already at a disadvantage. If they’re sleepy while driving to school, that’s going to increase the danger.”
To figure out how many schools are starting too early, CDC and U.S. Department of Education researchers reviewed data from the 2011-2012 Schools and Staffing Survey of nearly 40,000 public middle, high and combined schools.
Of the 50 states, 42 reported that between 75 percent and 100 percent of their public schools start the day before 8:30 a.m., the researchers reported.
Hawaii, Mississippi and Wyoming are the states that provide the most hindrance to students trying to get a good night’s sleep. None of the schools in those three states had a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later.
On the other hand, more than three out of four schools in Alaska and North Dakota started at 8:30 a.m. or later.
Louisiana had the earliest average school start time (7:40 a.m.), while Alaska had the most delayed (8:33 a.m.), according to the report.
“I’m thrilled this is getting some national attention,” said Dr. Safwan Badr, chief of the division of pulmonary & critical care and sleep medicine at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine in Detroit. “This is a major public health issue, and the science is very clear on it.”
Complex bus transportation demands that involve many different elementary, middle and high schools are a likely reason why some districts set early start times for older students, on the assumption that because they are older they will be better able to cope, Badr said.
But teenagers have a naturally delayed circadian rhythm (body clock), which means they tend to go to sleep later than adults and wake up later, said Badr, who also is a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“Your kids are not lazy-bones,” he said. “This is how they are wired. If they are getting up at 6 a.m., their brains still want them to get another hour of sleep.”
Early start times also give teenagers more time in the afternoon to pursue jobs or after-school activities, and allow parents to get their kids out of the house before they leave for work, said Badr and Dr. Pushpom James, a pediatrician at Staten Island University Hospital in Staten Island, NY.
Parents seeking to delay the school start times in their community often face resistance, the authors pointed out. School officials argue that delaying start times will increase bus transportation costs, force students and teachers to deal with rush-hour traffic, and make it more difficult to schedule athletics and other after-school activities.
Parents who are concerned about their teens’ sleep patterns can help by promoting good sleep hygiene, James said.
Parents can set and enforce a regular bed time and rise time, including on weekends. In addition, parents should pull the plug on all electronic entertainment an hour before bed time, including computers, TV, video games, tablets or smartphones, she said.
“An hour before bedtime, they shouldn’t be watching TV or on their phone,” James said, noting that kids who are exposed to more light in the evening are less likely to get enough sleep.
For more about teens and sleep, visit the National Sleep Foundation.