Should the school day start later? Virginia's Fairfax County School Board sure thinks so. A recent vote in the district not far from the nation's capitol will push back the start of high school classes to 8 a.m. The board's decision was based on research by the Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine, which found multiple reasons, including the following three, for why classes should start later.
Teens are going through biological changes that require more sleep
According to the CNMC, shifts in sleep and circadian rhythms (processes driven by a biological clock) are a byproduct of puberty. These changes, in turn, affect sleep times. The argument here is that these changes make it almost impossible for teenagers to regularly fall asleep before 11 p.m. If school is starting before 8 a.m., that means students are getting, at best, seven hours of sleep — which is currently the average for teens, and also not enough. A lack of a full night's rest creates a chronic sleep debt of 10 hours a week, according to the CNMC.
They need more sleep than adults
While seven hours of sleep may work for an adult, teens — who, as noted above, are going through rapid biological changes — require much more. The CNMC says that teens need between 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep in order to function at their best. We've all seen the trope in movies of the lazy teen who sleeps till noon, and while teens do tend to sleep in to make up for the hours they miss, this weekend snooze does not make them any more alert during the actual school week.
The extra rest has emotional benefits
According to the CNMC, students are less likely to be depressed if they have more time to sleep. Additionally, they will be more alert in class, when they are doing homework, and during extracurricular activities and sports. The report even went so far as to say that there are less behavior and disciplinary incidents when students have more time to sleep.
The CNMC's ideal start time would be 9 a.m., but the organization also recognizes that may not possible. Still, pushing school back by just 30 minutes can have positive benefits.
In order to come up with a new start time — which had many hurdles and costs, including re-routing school buses — the board considered seven principles:
- Making sure students have the best opportunity for health, safety, sleep and academics
- Bettering teacher and staff quality of life
- Minimizing additional costs that a new bus system would require
- Making sure the shift in the school day accommodates after school athletics and extracurriculars
- Providing before- and after-school programs for working families
- Giving flexibility to students who have after-school jobs
- Considering online learning options
Ultimately, the team decided to shift the beginning of class for high schoolers from 7:20 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. next year. Fairfax isn't the first district to experiment with a later start time, but the success (or failure) of its change will likely still be of interest to other districts nationwide.
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