For many American teenagers, high school means trying desperately to understand algebra or chemistry in the 7 am hour, fending off the urge to use your books, or your neighbour, as a pillow. But for kids in California, things may be looking up. On 1 July, a state law that protects most high school students from having to start class before 8.30 am – the first law of its kind nationwide. Other states, including New York and New Jersey, are considering similar measures for teens who want to go to bed and get up later than adults.
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According to Beth Ann Malow, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center neurologist who specialises in sleep disorders, the average teen needs about 9.25 hours of sleep a night. But most teens are getting only about 7.5 hours on weekdays.
The science is clear that insufficient sleep can have serious consequences for teenagers, including moodiness, depression, anxiety, poor grades, and increased risk-taking behaviour. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8.30 am.
“It’s not just that these kids are tired,” Malow says. “Their brains are cognitively impaired. They can’t learn as well when they’re sleep-deprived.”
So far, research on later school start times has been promising. A 2016 study in the journal Sleep Health found that when schools pushed back their start times, teens slept an average of 34 minutes longer on school nights. And a 2014 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that later start times improved standardised test scores and grades, especially among disadvantaged students.
But changing school start times is not easy. For one thing, it can throw off the schedules of working parents who must drop their kids off at school on their way to work. It can also impact after-school activities like sports and clubs.
In California, lawmakers addressed these concerns by exempting schools that can demonstrate “undue hardship” from the 8.30 am start time requirement. In practice, this means that schools with a high percentage of low-income students or those that rely on busing may be able to start earlier than 8.30 am.
The law also gives schools flexibility in how they implement later start times. Some districts are beginning high school later and elementary school earlier, while others are changing the schedule for all grade levels.
It will likely take years to know whether California’s later start times make teenagers happier and healthier. But Malow says she is optimistic that the changes will positively impact.
“I think it’s going to make a difference,” she says. “It’s not a panacea but a step in the right direction.”
What do you think of later school start times? Do you think they would make a difference for teenagers in your community?
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