Yes, Teens’ Schools Should Start Later—But Also…

In their first policy statement on this increasingly debated issue, the American Academy of Pediatrics said this week that middle schools and high schools need to start later. Numerous studies unequivocally demonstrate improvements in teens’ physical and mental health, decreases in their incidence of car accidents, and sometimes better school performance.

Biologically, this makes sense. Around puberty, kids’ circadian rhythms change. Unlike their parents and younger siblings, they’re no longer tired at 11 PM. Many students stay up to finish homework, study for tests, and use electronics, all of which further delay sleep. Concentrating on schoolwork and worrying about exams makes it harder for teens to turn off their minds, and computers’ blue-light exposure keeps their brains awake. The problem is, many high school students have to catch buses before 7 AM, preventing them from getting anywhere close to the 8 to 10 hours of sleep recommended for them.

It seems sensible for schools to schedule start-times most appropriate for students’ different biorhythms. Younger children, who typically rise earlier, should begin school earlier, just as later start times are better suited to adolescents.

But unless parents intervene with their teens, this policy change could backfire.

If schools delay start times, many teens will take this as license to stay up even later. The majority of high school students I see in my practice describe working until all hours simply because they can’t accomplish everything they have to do. By the time they get home from athletic practices, dance classes, tutoring sessions, and so forth, it’s all they can to have a quick dinner and maybe a shower before settling down to hours and hours of homework. When they have tests the next day, sometimes in several classes, teens often fight fatigue into the wee hours. Knowing they can sleep in for an extra 3o minutes or hour may alleviate their fears of not being able to awaken in time for school in the morning. (Many teens have described buying multiple clocks, all with extra loud alarms, and placing them strategically around their rooms so as not to sleep through them.)

Even if schools make this change in start time, then, parents have to do their part. One important role is to help teens to plan and organize their time. Now is the time when students decide what teams to try out for and what extra curricular activities to pursue. With all the opportunities available to them—as well as the looming anxiety of impressing college admissions committees—it is often hard for them to set priorities, realize their limits, and say “no” to perfectly wonderful sports or hobbies. Parents can help them think through these choices. Similarly, after the first week or two of classes, they should be encouraged to assess whether their course load is right for them or if the classes they’ve taken are too challenging or stressful. That’s when parents can be the voice of reason, making sure teens aren’t over scheduling themselves, making too many commitments, and leaving themselves too little time for their responsibilities, let alone down time.

Delaying school start times even an hour or so can only do so much—especially if kids use that extra hour to catch up on their work rather than their sleep.

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