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Later High School Start Times Improve Student Learning and Health

During the school year, many teenagers find themselves nodding off during their early morning classes as high school bells ring around 7:30 a.m. While parents and teachers may attribute falling asleep during class to staying up too late checking Facebook statuses and texting with friends, medical evidence suggests that an early school start time before 8:30 AM is a greater culprit because classes are occurring when students’ brains and bodies are still in biological sleep mode.

In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation teenagers ages 13-19 have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. This occurs because the brain chemical melatonin which is responsible for sleepiness is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. – the sleep phase shift. Early school start times interrupt this natural sleep pattern, leaving many high school students sleep deprived. Recognizing the negative effects sleep deprivation can have on learning and overall health, the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) conducted the first research study of its kind to determine how shifting to a later school start time impacts schools and students.

The School Start Time Study tracked high school students from two Minneapolis-area districts – Edina, a suburban district that changed their start time from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and the Minneapolis Public Schools that changed their school start time from 7:20 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. The study discovered that later school start times provided many positive benefits to high school students, including:

  • Improved attendance and enrollment rates
  • Less sleeping in class
  • Less student-reported depression
  • Fewer student visits to school counselors for behavioral and peer issues
  • More even temperament at home

Five years later, a longitudinal follow-up study of the Minneapolis Public Schools revealed that the positive benefits continued to persist over time.

A common misconception that many parents and school administrators have is that students would use the later morning start time as an excuse to stay up later on school nights. However, students actually continued to go to bed at the same time (approximately 15 minutes before 11 p.m.), which aligns with their natural sleep cycle. The later high school start time also did not affect enrollment in after-school sports and activities or increase transportation costs. In fact, coaches and teachers reported students were more mentally alert at the end of the day.

The School Start Time Study has captured national attention of teachers, superintendents, parents and school nurses who are looking to make a change in their districts. Since the study, more than 250 schools throughout the country have changed to a later school start time.

Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
For teenage students attending school with an early start time, there are ways to ensure they are getting enough sleep:

  • Develop a regular routine before bed to signal to the body and brain that you’re moving into sleep mode
  • Engage in quiet activities before bed like turning off the TV and electronic devices by 10 p.m. and reading in bed
  • Don’t eat, drink or exercise within a few hours of bedtime
  • Keep a diary or to-do lists to clear your mind before you go to sleep. You’ll be less likely to stay awake worrying or stressing.

Sleep deprivation can significantly affect students’ learning and emotional health. Implementing later high school start times that align with teenagers’ natural sleep cycles can improve the classroom environment and student performance.

Kyla Wahlstrom

Director
Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement
College of Education and Human Development
University of Minnesota

Read Kyla's Bio

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8 Responses

  1. Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. says:

    The research on this subject is clear, as this article states so well, but vested interests and widespread myth (however unjustified) make it difficult if not impossible for many schools to change their hours. Even when the push to change comes from a superintendent, public outcry often derails it. Many school administrators understand that asking a community to change entrenched habits can be career suicide.

    Ultimately, the issue of setting and ensuring safe, healthy school start times is a matter of public health and safety. It needs to be treated as such if we want to avoid subjecting yet another generation to what we now know to be counterproductive and dangerous schedules. For more information on the grassroots effort to make this happen, see http://www.StartSchoolLater.net.

    • CEHD says:

      Terra, thanks for providing the StartSchoolLater resource. Since the study, we know more than 250 schools embraced later starts, so some progress is being made! Dr. Wahlstrom will also be on the WCCO-AM radio show this Thursday evening (Aug 30 at 8:30 p.m. central) discussing her research on school start times and the effects of sleep on learning. We hope you’ll tune in. You can listen online here: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/station/830-wcco/

      Thanks again for the feedback,
      -CEHD Vision 2020 blog team

  2. Featured research in blog:
    Recent & Selected Literature, Audio/Video, etc. “The Impact of School Start Times on Adolescent Health and Academic Performance”

  3. Sample Advocacy Letter: The Impact of School Start Times on Adolescent Health and Academic Performance

    Citing Dr. Wahlstrom:

    …Center for Applied Research & Educational Improvement (CAREI), Univ. Minn. (Wahlstrom, Later High School Start Times Improve Student Learning and Health Aug. 24, 2012) Univ. Minn., College of Education & Human Development, Vision 2020 Blog

  4. [...] 17 states are considering delaying their start times.” In August of 2012, Kyla Wahlstrom reported that “more than 250 schools throughout the country have changed to a later school start time.” [...]

  5. [...] Sleep patterns have a major impact on student educational achievement. We know, in fact, that “medical evidence suggests that an early school start time before 8:30 AM is a greater culpri… [...]

  6. […] & Sleep Conference, we’re trying to bring awareness to this issue and influence change—from later school start times to understanding how sleep affects learning, moods, obesity, and beyond. We need the educational […]

  7. CEHD says:

    Kyla Wahlstrom and our Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) has released new findings on the impact of later school start times. These findings are the result of a three-year study surrounding more than 9,000 high school students in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming. It not only represents the first hard evidence of later start times leading to better performance in school, but also fewer teen car crashes and less tardiness, substance abuse and symptoms of depression. The study also found just 34% of students starting school at 7:30 a.m. are getting the recommended eight hours of sleep compared to 66% students starting school at 8:55 a.m. These numbers alone are significant with the known effects of sleep deprivation.

    For more information on our most recent study, read the Star Tribune’s report: http://www.startribune.com/local/west/249975531.html

    -CEHD Vision 2020 Blog Team

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