Skip to main content

Let kids sleep later

By Terra Ziporyn Snider
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Expert group recommends middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
  • Many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation because their sleep patterns have changed
  • Sleep deprivation can produce mood swings, difficulty concentrating, car accidents
  • Snider: People resist later school start, but lives will adjust and kids will do better in school

Editor's note: Terra Ziporyn Snider is a medical writer, historian and former associate editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. She is the executive director and co-founder of Start School Later, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- The American Academy of Pediatrics' new recommendation to start middle and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. is a turning point in the decades-old battle to start school later. Establishing adolescent sleep and school hours as public health issues -- and specifying an earliest acceptable bell time -- should energize communities to stop condemning another generation to chronic sleep deprivation.

The science supporting a return to later school start times is clear, and has been since the 1990s. As a science writer, I've read many compelling studies that show starting classes in the 7 a.m. hour -- not to mention sending sleep-deprived teenagers onto the streets as early as 5:30 a.m. -- is unhealthy, unsafe, and counterproductive. Raising three children who battled a 7:17 a.m. high school bell time erased any remaining doubts that they needed to start school later.

The root of the problem is that in puberty, a shift in circadian rhythms, or "body clocks," pushes optimal sleep time forward. Most teenagers simply can't fall asleep before 11 p.m. even if they're lying in bed for hours. When dawn rolls around, they haven't gotten close to the 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep their still-growing brains and bodies need.

The resulting sleep deprivation can produce mood swings, obesity, substance abuse, immune disorders, and depression. Teenagers suffering from chronic fatigue often can't pay attention in school and have difficulty concentrating and remembering. Their judgment can be impaired, and sleepy drivers can get in accidents.

"Almost all teenagers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep," says James B. Maas, a sleep expert at Cornell University.

Sleep deprivation in children is also what the Academy of Pediatrics calls "one of the most common -- and easily fixable -- public health issues in the U.S. today."

Turning science into policy that fixes it, however, is another matter. When my family first moved to Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in 2000, our school district had already approved a pilot to start one of its 12 high schools at 9 a.m. We were convinced that by the time my seventh-grader got into high school, the whole district would follow suit. That plan was axed at the last minute, and, since then, nothing has changed. That seventh-grader is now 26, and my baby, then in kindergarten, is a college sophomore.

Develop good homework habits
Generation stressed: teens boiling over

Running schools from 7 a.m. until about 2 p.m. appears to be relatively new -- although record-keeping is poor -- despite common sentiment that "we've always done things this way." Schools seem to have shifted earlier primarily to save money on bus costs in the 1970s or 1980s, before sleep science had revealed much about adolescent sleep needs and patterns.

Reluctance to reverse a bad decision is understandable. Community life revolves around public school hours, and any change in schedule -- whether earlier or later -- inevitably stirs up powerful opposition.

Many people react to suggestions to change starting times with scorn, fear, or even vitriol. Adults have vested interests in the early-start, early-release school days, and those concerns often trump the best interests of kids. People are wary of how later hours will affect daycare, sports and other extracurricular activities, jobs, and even traffic patterns.

These fears help explain why most school systems resist starting the school day later, even when they want to do so. It doesn't help that sleep is an emotional and even a moral issue for many people, and, sadly, is often considered a luxury.

The good news is that we have solid evidence showing that fears about later bell times are groundless. Studies coming out of the University of Minnesota, Brown University, and the Children's National Medical Center provide evidence that running schools at developmentally appropriate hours not only improves health and academic performance but actually results in teenagers getting significantly more sleep. Community life adjusts to school schedules, not vice versa.

The true obstacles aren't sports or bus costs, but the fear of change and failure of imagination. We've found schools in 43 states that have worked out feasible, affordable ways to ensure later, healthier hours by putting health, safety, and learning first. Their solutions didn't require rocket science but, rather, a shift of priorities.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT