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To Keep Teenagers Alert, Schools Let Them Sleep In (well.blogs.nytimes.com)
43 points by danso on Mar 13, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

Overemphasizing high school sports leads to a schedule which causes sleep deprivation for most of the students and subsequent drop in academic performance.


"During football season in particular, the focus of American principals, teachers, and students shifts inexorably away from academics. Sure, high-school football players spend long, exhausting hours practicing (and according to one study, about 15 percent experience a brain injury each season), but the commitment extends to the rest of the community, from late-night band practices to elaborate pep rallies to meetings with parents. Athletics even dictate the time that school starts each day: despite research showing that later start times improve student performance, many high schools begin before 8 a.m., partly to reserve afternoon daylight hours for sports practice."

Substitute football for "ballet" and pep rallies for "debate team practice" and drop the completely non-relevant (and severely biased) quote about head trauma and see if you get the same reaction.

I know it's fun to pick on Football and jocks in general but I don't think we can have a serious debate on the subject when the bias is so obvious.

What about we make athletics part of the school day? Shocking I know, but if we recognize athletics as an important key to youth development and not something that has to happen after "real school" than maybe we might be able to tackle this issue of kids being so overwhelmed and having to stay up late just to stay afloat.

I don't think it's fair to make every student wake up unnaturally early for the sake of those with any kind of extracurricular activity, not just sports.

Harming school performance and sleep depriving developing children in the time that they need sleep the most, just to give a self-selected portion of the student body extra time for sports, debate team, student council, etc. makes absolutely no sense to me.

>What about we make athletics part of the school day?

We already did, it's called "gym."

"gym" is a joke on many different levels ... but that's a different debate altogether. Also I take issue with the term "extracurricular" as it implies something separate from "actual" schooling. Maybe if these activities weren't tacked on after school like an afterthought more kids would be apt to take them up.

I hate to be pedantic, but I don't think "self-selected" is really accurate. In my, and most high schools, in my area, most people do at least one extracurricular, and most do many more than that.

If it's not self-selected, then who selects it?

Unnaturally early? If we really want to go that route we should consider that our ancestors, until very recent times, were generally well awake before 8:00 AM on any given day. Also they generally didn't stay up late by our current standards, generally in bed an hour or two after sundown. So the issue isn't 8:00 am is unnaturally early, it is most likely staying up unnaturally late that is the culprit.

I wish I could have gotten up at 8 or even 7AM when I was in school. We're talking about school starting hours, not wakeup times. You can't wake up just before the bell rings and teleport into class. Depending on how far you live from school, what transportation method you use (whether you ride a school bus, regular public transportation, are a spoiled brat that can get mommy to drive you, etc), what your responsibilities are outside of school, and so on, you may need to wake up a considerable amount of time before the school day officially begins.

My school started at 7:30AM, which required I get up just before 6AM, from middle school onward. I don't think that's a natural time to require growing teenagers to wake up at. It was still dark outside then, where I lived. Even amongst grown adults, those that can wake up that early and function without incurring a sleep debt are rare.

>So the issue.. is most likely staying up unnaturally late.

Kids naturally begin staying up and waking up later after they hit puberty. Trying to fight that is stupid and harmful.

We are not our ancestors ;) In all seriousness, sometimes we cannot look into the past to guide us as we as humans and culture have evolved to develop many new behaviors and biological traits. Our ancestors lived much shorter lives, in a vastly different world, doing vastly different type of work/schooling, I don't think it's fair to compare everything so literally.

You don't get straight out of bed into a classroom. As for the end of the day, you can either spend the rest of the daylight hours doing homework indoors and then go straight to bed, or you can go outside and do the homework later, after dark (requiring less than 8 hours of sleep). Which is the healthier lifestyle?

Not quite the same, you don't need daylight to do ballet or debate.

I don't know why football practice can't just be a PE replacement credit. Other than your PE coaches can't be two places at once if they are also team coaches.

Neither ballet or debate needs natural sunlight.

My high school started at 7:40 AM and I never understood why. I've never forgiven them for (among a laundry list of similar evils) the effect 4 years of chronic sleep deprivation must have had on my developing brain. My alarm was set for 6 AM so I could catch a 7 AM school bus (I only lived about 15 minutes away, but the bus was slow, took a painful route, and arrived 10 minutes early). I had to place my alarm so that I'd have to get up and walk across the room to turn it off, or I'd never have woken up. It was generally pitch black at 6AM, so this eventually resulted in me slicing my finger wide open on the edge of a mirror as I reached clumsily and half-asleep for my alarm. I still have the scar.

I'd like to be able to say that it gives me closure to finally have an explanation, but honestly it just makes me madder that football was responsible.

My (very non-affluent) school started at 7:20, and the stated reasoning was to maximize the earnings opportunity for those students who had after-school jobs.

I thought part of it was so they could use the same fleet of buses for HS/JHS/Primary.

That is a good reason to stagger school starting times. It doesn't explain the need to make HS and JHS start so early, or why on earth they would start earlier than primary school when young children tend to wake up earlier than teenagers anyway.

7:30 for primary/elementary school and 8:30 for HS and JHS would have been great (or maybe even 8 and 9 respectively), but I suppose some kids skipping class after their parents had left for work would ruin it for everyone.

EDIT: How much do you think reusing the bus fleets actually saves? Compared to have one big fleet that transports all schools at the same time, you need less buses, and probably save a little by paying less drivers for more time, but I'd expect the cost of fuel to dominate, which should be about the same regardless. Operating more busses also means that each is sustaining less wear per day as well.

Hmm, they definitely did do that. But couldn't they do that anyway if all the schools were at the same time? Admittedly you've have high schoolers and first graders on the same bus, but it would certainly save on fuel...

Three separate trips means a third the number of buses to service the same number of people (assuming equal distribution). And a third the number of drivers/etc.

'Athletics even dictate the time that school starts each day: despite research showing that later start times improve student performance, many high schools begin before 8 a.m., partly to reserve afternoon daylight hours for sports practice."'

Seems like it might make more sense to put the training mid school-day. Exercise typically helps mental function.

What's the deal with classes starting so early in the morning? Is this just a US thing? All through my schooling in Australia we never started before 9 am.

When I read the title I though schools would be letting teenagers sleep in for an 11 am start.

Same in Finland. Earliest time was 8am, but also 9am or 10am or later. Also there are no school busses so usually kids just go to school by themselves, starting from the first grade.

American public schools are so awful and America's hatred for teachers so strong that many politicians who run on being pro-education immediately try to lengthen the school day without raising teacher pay. It's an act that says both that you're not afraid to attack unions, and that nobody has to pay to improve education, just kick those lazy, stupid teachers into working harder (because more is better, right?)

Anecdotally, I don't remember any school starting before 8:45 or so when I was a kid 30 years ago.

Teenagers aren't lazy when they won't get up in the morning, their bodies actually require 9-10 hours of sleep normally to be awake, where as a normal adults require 8 hours to function at peak. They're still growing/developing, more to the point their brain is still going through a fundamental stage of brain development where new neural connections are being made, and a lot of that goes on during the sleep cycle, on top of holding a full schedule.


From looking at the chart referenced in your link, it would seem to me that our youngest school age kids should get into school the latest, and teenagers the earliest. If we extend this logic, college age kids should be having classes even earlier (try to read that without chuckling).

Yet most of the news/research I read is about appeasing groggy teenagers. Why aren't we focusing on elementary and middle schoolers? One of my other replies in this thread was about how locally they've shifted high schoolers to a later start time and as a result the younger kids are forced into an earlier time schedule. Makes no sense if we're using the data referenced.

Other research indicates that teenager's brains tend to receive the sleep hormone later than everyone else. Hence the drive for later start times.

I find it very interesting how when you are young and developing you require more sleep than when you are older. But the schedule is set by adults so they aren't given that latitude. Same for the "early risers" who seem to set the schedule for everyone in the adult world. I feel like I could more naturally live my life if work started at 10am but I'm not afforded that latitude either for arbitrary reasons (I'm not in the service industry).

Can we think of other way's to make teenagers less attractive as part time employees?

If they don't get out of school until early evening, I would consider them mostly un-employable. Oh well, its not like they are in an economy that can support them... and surely this won't lead to a sense of entitlement later in life.

A first world education system should not prioritize the employability of minors in manual labor over their health and education.

The school of hard knocks is what most teenagers need. Otherwise they end up in college, in debt, no real skills, and a international communication degree with no job prospects.

The students who will succeed likely will be able to handle employment and school. Aren't most high schools now days, you show, you pass?

I wonder how big of a role artificial light at night plays in this problem. My experience tells me that the later I have to get up the longer I stay awake at night. At the moment I am experimenting with blue light blocking sun glasses that I put on after sunset:


The report they linked also looks interesting, although I have only read the major findings in the introduction: "Examining the Impact of Later High School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study": http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/11299/162769/1/Impact%2...

Lately, it's been popular to push for a laptop for every child in schools. That's all well and good but I think it would he far more economical and beneficial to the students overall if schools provided a wearable activity tracker for each student. (Fitbit, etc.) Excercise is well known to promote brain health and overall alertness, etc.

Or install f.lux on all of the laptops. Forcing students to wear a tracking device is maybe not the best idea.

Why? Many/most fitness trackers do not track your location. They just track your steps (movement). My idea was that it would help encourage more physical activity in an era where sometimes video games and television supplant outdoor activity.

f.lux might help but lack of sleep is not necessarily the problem but rather quality of sleep. Excercise improves sleep quality.

Maybe I'm too much of a cynic, but this is such a first-world problem... While the extra hour may seem like a lot, the quote from the teenager featured as the "sleep activist" really strikes me how poorly our society sets up priorities - "“I thought, if that happens, I will die,” recalled Jilly, 17. “I will drop out of school!”".

Really?! This is how much value you place on your education and your future life that an extra 30 minutes a day can prompt you to throw it all away?

Growing up fairly privileged in a USSR military family I myself have seen relatively few hard times (country collapses are rarely fun...), but my Grandfather's stories of having to carve math equations out on logs with a knife so he could do his homework because post WWII paper and pencils were in very short supply... He constantly emphasized how much he had to fight for his education and it seared in my brain that I must succeed. Dropping out was never an option I would even consider.

At 17, I managed to work full time, graduate from high school and start at a university, and have so much fun that I keep worrying some odd photo will surface that I have no memory of... Yes, I did not sleep as much as I wanted, but I have no regrets about how I lived life or do now.

the "First world problem" meme is kind of aggravating. So we can't optimize our lifestyle anymore because there are people starving in Africa? How could we have taken the time it took to analyze that and somehow helped the third world? A 17 year old is having trouble for possibly legitimate reasons, and he shouldn't be listened to because there are worms that can grow in your skin if you walk in tepid pools in Africa?

As someone who had sleep apnea for several years I can tell you that an extra half hour of sleep means a lot to you. And the sleep deprivation caused me to suffer a lot and really ran my brain capacity down to a nub. So if you really want to have children dedicate a decade or more to mental training you should listen to their feedback about what is hindering them.

Because a good night sleep is crucial to better performance in school, workplace and life in general.

For dangerous jobs, the stake are much higher. It can mean the difference between death or a really a close dangerous incident.

I recall reading in "Black Hawk Down" that the helicopter pilots - and only them - got to sleep in air conditioned trailers. Piloting a helicopter is so dangerous, and the conditions in which they were doing it even more so, and so many lives were routinely at stake, that making sure the pilots got a good night's sleep was worth it.

Everyone's job was dangerous, of course, but the reaction time of a well-rested versus a not well-rested pilot could mean the difference between a dozen deaths or a routine day.

So now we are comparing high school to piloting helicopters in a war zone?

I was responding directly to the parent poster's comment about dangerous jobs. But everything is on a spectrum. If we acknowledge that something is important in the extreme case, it's worth thinking about how important it is in less extreme cases.

> my Grandfather's stories of having to carve math equations out on logs with a knife so he could do his homework because post WWII paper and pencils were in very short supply...


Did you believe him?

My grandfather used to walk 10 miles each way to get to school. With no shoes. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways.

[ObCulturalExplanation: above is the standard American clichéd hyperbolic of the clichéd "kids-these-days" rant delivered by ancestral males to teenagers. Maybe in the CCCP, they really did carve homework into logs and bring them into class the next day. I certainly don't know.]

Actually I did. I visited the village he grew up in... I was shocked to see clean water. Russia may be industrialized, but the wealth doesn't filter down as evenly as here. Also, remember that was 1940s when most of the country lay in ruins.

I think it's worth keeping in mind that 17-year-olds tend to speak in hyperbole.

I never understood this. Parents tend to get off work around 5-6, right? Schools were so adamant, in my experience, about getting kids out of there (and sending all the staff/faculty home) by 3:30. This is at every grade level, including those where the students can not yet drive. This also means that there's an extra need for school-provided transportation (busses). The need for more than half of the student body to ride busses feels like a huge process smell to me, both in that the city should be providing transportation and that the school is requiring students to come and go at times that are too inconvenient for everyone.

Why not, instead, shift the school end time back to 5:30? Instead of 3:15 (as it was for me, though I'm sure it varies), this adds 2 hours and 15 minutes to the day. As a result, the academic day can begin at 10:30 rather than 8:15. Labs, libraries, etc can all be open during this period to allow students to catch up on work, get help, etc if they wish to come in early (or need to due to their parents' work schedule). The cafeteria could even open on a limited basis to serve breakfast in this time. But there's no rush to get in class by 8:15 and no need to start serving breakfast at 7 AM or earlier.

Then athletics can start early (say 6:30-7) instead of running excessively late. And further, the school can remain open in the same state it did for morning for these students and others who wish to stay late and work on their assignments.

I felt, in HS, so rushed to get in class, "learn" (hard to do when you're constantly moving from room to room) and then get out and do all the work at home. Ok that's fine, it was convenient for me since I was able to walk home in just 5 minutes, but for most people I suspect this was a horrible pressure. And for people who don't have access to everything at home, this is also probably damaging to their ability to complete work, and likely discouraging. Not to mention distractions, etc.

I really liked how it was in college. Because I had to commute, I tended to stay on campus later. I didn't have my distractions (home, games, computer, etc) with me, so I'd end up just doing my work or research. Then when I went home, I had nothing but free time. Time I spent reading articles on hacking, watching defcon videos, chatting in IRC, playing games, reverse engineering, etc. All tasks which I thoroughly enjoyed. All made possible because I had a place to work separate from my home. So the notion of "home work" seems broken to me. Totally broken. There needs to be work/life balance, and part of that includes a separation of "home" and "work". I never felt that in HS.

I found it really strange that morning detention was incredibly productive. I had the pleasure of receiving this once in 7th grade. I brought a book and read half of it in that time. In fact, working was required, no talking. Otherwise I would've been just standing outside goofing off. There was no place for us to go like that at the school to be productive. We had to stand around outside until classes started. And you realistically had to do that to be on time to class. Doesn't this seem odd?

Also interesting was the partial schedule I had in my senior year. I had a calculus course that began at 11 AM, which means I got to sleep in most days of the week. I would often go to school at 10 AM and go sit in the library and read or go over my work, then go to class at 11. I don't think I ever received a B on anything in the class (sure, it was easy, but this was statistically anomalous to my other grades, I never did homework at home; I always did it on campus, and my grades reflected that, and I didn't care because "home" was not a place to do work). I also got a perfect score on the Calculus BC exam and skipped multiple college courses as a result. And because of that experience, I realized I enjoyed math far more than I had previously thought and wanted to learn more, beyond Calculus, and so I ended up getting a math degree.

Are there actually any negatives? Sure, the pay for teachers needs to be increased to justify spending more time at school, and even more than that, it should probably be doubled or more realistically because there's currently no economic incentive for the smartest people to teach. But that's an existing problem.

Can't say I'm a fan of this as the father of two elementary school students. The push to accommodate sleepy teenagers means my 5 and 7 year old have to wake before 6 AM to be on the bus by 7:00 AM. If any segment of school age kids are better equipped for an early start it's teenagers who can fully understand the concept of getting a good nights sleep. That kind of reason/logic isn't quite fully developed in a... 5 year old.

Seriously get off the damn cell phone, shut down your Mac and go the fuck to sleep. The more of a routine this becomes the easier it is to drag your ass out of bed early in the morning. Don't force little kids to be in bed at dinner time just because your teenagers are ...cranky.

Maybe I'm showing my old-age here but I think most of this is bull.

Maybe it's a US thing, but why does "teenagers starting later" mean that your 5 and 7 year old have to be awake so early?

I am guessing it is because of buses; the same bus has to take the highschool kids and the elementary kids. It used to be the highschool kids went first, and then the elementary school kids.. now they are reversing it, so the younger kids have to get up earlier.


The same set of buses is used for elementary, middle, and high schools, so elementary schools in most places tend to start later (like 9am) and the high schools earlier (like 730). The district in the article probably just reversed those times.

Because they use the same school buses for elementary high school, but not at the same time. The routes are based on where the students actually are, so combining them would make transit time significantly longer for each student, plus I'm sure there are other concerns about having rowdy teenagers on the same buses as kindergarten students.

They shifted the bus schedule to better accommodate the older kids which means the younger kids had to catch a bus over an hour earlier. My point is "all kids" drag ass in the morning, but IMHO teenagers are better equipped to deal with it than a child under the age of 10.

Actually if you read the research it disagrees with you.

Younger kids naturally rise earlier than teenagers. You can talk as much as you want about "they should do this" and "understand that", but you can't fight their basic biology.

naa...i think you're dead on. This entire article reads like "We'll adjust everything so that high schoolers don't have to adjust at all".

If you need 10hours of sleep, my all means get it! But adjust your schedule so you get it, don't make everyone else adjust.

Your old age is certainly showing. Younger children typically go to bed before older children be it their choice or their parents forcing bedtimes. Its only logical the older children should have a later wake-up time.

their choice or their parents forcing bedtimes

I would let my kids stay up much later (and they would gladly take me up on the offer) if I didn't have to get them up at 6AM. They aren't newborns who need to go to bed at 5PM, they would bounce of the walls until 10 or 11 if I could let them. This isn't logical, it's the result of the decisions made regarding school start time.

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