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Teens and sleep: The impact of high school start times

In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that middle schools and high schools delay the start of class to at least 8:30 a.m. So why the change?

The truth is, teenagers often become night owls around the time they hit puberty, due to a natural shift in their sleep patterns — up to two hours later! This can cause even highly motivated teens to have difficulty falling asleep. When you combine that later bedtime with an early start to school, you end up with students who are too sleepy to learn.

A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders, and a whopping 87 percent of U.S. high school students, were not getting the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night.

Why later start times matter

Evidence exists that shows starting school later leads to positive results. In the landmark School Start Time Study (1997), the Minneapolis Public School District shifted its high school start time from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. and found that students got about one hour more of sleep per night. Additionally, students reported less sleepiness, less napping in school and fewer concentration issues in class. The later start time also correlated with increased attendance and a decreased dropout rate.

So if a later start time is such a good thing, why haven’t later start times caught on? Well, there are many challenges to making the change, including alternate bus routes and coordinating sporting events with other school districts. As you can imagine, there can be a huge financial impact associated with these changes. Despite these challenges, some communities have become active in helping their school leaders understand the sleep needs of teens and the positive impact of later start times.

At Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, we believe that promoting healthy sleep in children of all ages is important and we support community efforts to implement appropriate high school start times.