Pros & Cons of School Starting Later for Teens

By Kathryn Walsh
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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends start times of 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high schools, and few teens would fight a later wake-up time. But while pushing back the first bell seems like a no-brainer on paper, making even small adjustments to a school's schedule has ripple effects, affecting all the families in the district as well as the larger community.

Pros of Later Start Time

The average teenager needs about nine hours of sleep per night for optimal health, but few teens get that. Your child could be alert and ready for school at 6 a.m. if she went to bed at 9 p.m., but with extracurriculars, jobs and homework, it's unrealistic for many teens to go to bed that early. Even if they did, sleep isn't guaranteed.

Puberty changes a child's circadian rhythms, explains the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, so a teen's body may not be ready to sleep until 10 or 11 p.m. (SEE REF 2) Texting, watching TV and finishing school work may keep her up until midnight or later. A teen following this schedule can't get adequate sleep and be in her homeroom seat by 8 a.m.

That extra sleep pays off all day. One 2014 University of Minnesota study of 9,000 high schoolers found that pushing back start time led to increased test scores, greater academic achievement, increased attendance, decreased substance abuse and use of caffeinated beverages and decreased depression. (SEE REF 3)

Alert teens are also safer drivers. The study found that in the school with the latest start time, 8:55 a.m., car crashes decreased by 70 percent after the start time was delayed. (SEE REF 3)

Cons of Later Start Time

Pushing back school start times means pushing back all activities. If a school day that used to end at 3:00 p.m. now ends at 4:00, that equals an hour less daylight for outdoor sports practices, and coordinating games with other schools can be challenging if those schools are on an earlier schedule.

Losing 30 minutes or an hour after school also means less time for students to work after-school jobs, which would affect the employers who rely on teen employees. Many teens need after-school work to help their families, pay for SAT prep courses or save for college.

Teens would also have fewer after-school hours to do school work and attend extracurricular activities. Factoring in that extra hour means teens may miss family dinner and be unavailable to watch younger siblings.

Busing is another potential complication in delaying school start time. If the same buses are used to transport elementary-, middle- and high-school students, changing the schedule of one school must affect the schedules of the others. Your district may simply flip the start time of the high school and elementary school, but that would potentially leave the youngest students sleep deprived and waiting for the bus in the dark.

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About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.