There are a lot of studies out there that support the idea of beginning the school day earlier for Middle and High Schools. Brain research suggests that teenage brains begin to change cycles from an earlier wake-up (and bedtime) to a much later one. So, why do we continue to fight the hard-wiring of our bodies? What is preventing us from moving elementary classes earlier and middle/high school classes later? We constantly reconfigure our curriculum, monies, and teacher training, but why not our time?
Let’s rethink when schools begin so that we are going with the grain when it comes to when our bodies best learn, rather than against it.
The Brain Research
In 2007, Daniel Martin wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled Making Teens Start School in the Morning is ‘Creul’, Brain Doctor Claims. In this article, he cites Oxford University neuroscientist Professor Russell Foster who states that “teens would achieve more if they were allowed to have a lie-in and not start their classes until the afternoon.” This is certainly a contrary to common practice kind of statement. Essentially, the early morning is not optimal for students to learn and those schools who switched to later times showed marked improvement in scores and less tardiness or signs of depression.
Professor Foster refers to research regarding levels of melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep) in students from teenagers up to the age of 20. They found that teenage brain and body clocks get set progressively later as they approach typical college years. In short, their body is hardwired to go to sleep much later and, consequently, wake up much later. Interestingly enough, after age 20, it starts to reverse itself. This may explain why the stereotype exists for our older population who fall asleep on the couch at 6-7pm and wake at 3-4am to start their day!
Forcing your body to wake earlier does nothing to help the level of after-sleep haziness that exists if you go against your body’s sleep clock. Of course, there are those who can train their bodies to wake earlier, but it is still an uphill biological battle. Professor Foster agrees and states “Teenagers’ body clocks can be delayed between two and four hours and they don’t start to function until 10am or as late as noon.” Well, I don’t know about you, but that certainly explains a lot about my middle school through college experience!
The National Center for Health Research published an article that says “Starting at puberty (and as early as ages 8-12), many children’s biological “circadian” rhythms change. They start staying up later at night and sleeping later in the mornings… There are individual differences, but most adolescents “naturally” feel awake later at night, making it difficult to go to sleep before 10 p.m.”
Take a second and think about your personal middle school, high school, and college experience and especially about those friends around you. What was the general consensus about mornings? Doesn’t this research somewhat support the general sleep cycles of that age group?
Are we doing anything about this? Well, there was recently a contest, highlighted in the New York Times here, where $100 Million was awarded to school to “rethink U.S. high schools.” There were a variety of schools awarded for various ideas. One that addressed beginning school later in the day was Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School who will begin their school day at 8:30 am to 5:15 pm. Though this is a start and will still help their students, it is certainly not enough to offset the brain’s chemical composition according to the research. Why can’t we begin classes at 10am? Why fight it? Why not try to make it work?
The average U.S. school day is a little under 7 hours. Is a U.S. school day from 10am to 4:45pm such a stretch? How about 9:30 to 4:15? There are still those who will argue against this. Perhaps we can address this.
What can we do about it?
It seems that we have a number of issues that get in the way of changing our middle and high school systems to begin later in the day. There seems to be less of an excuse for colleges and universities to at least try it, but let’s not harp on that. Instead, let’s try to address some of the very valid concerns schools may have for beginning school later and offer some ideas that may not necessarily solve, but will start discussion toward seeking a viable solution.
Top 3 complaints:
“All of our practices and games are later in the afternoon and this new school day will disrupt that.”
However, sports bring in revenue, provide many of the physical extracurricular activities for school, and bring a certain amount of prestige if their sports team does well. So, what can we do to still ensure people move to the district, but not limit sports activities?
We could move practices to the morning before classes. This would free up the afternoon hours for classes. Also, morning workout routines would help get the blood flowing and wake up those duller minds. These student-athletes were going to wake up earlier before the change anyway, right? This will help calm their athletic overcharged bodies that need to move as well. Rather than struggling to sit still in the classroom, they already spent some physical energy, so they are ready to relax and take on more mentally strenuous activities.
You can reschedule core classes for the first half of periods during the school day. Free periods can move to the end of the day and sports teams can leave during their last period study halls for games (giving more time for travel). Or, they can get their work completed during this last few free periods as a team instead of trying to complete it after a game. How many times do students who played an away game “have to” work on the bumpy bus because they know they will have dinner when they get home and then first have to begin all their work. It is a vicious cycle that can be broken!
But, is there enough Instructional time? I wrote another article here that helps understand it (see last paragraph). In short, YES there is time and you can even play with schedules so that core subjects are given preference in the first classes (right after 10am).
You can even open the school with limited staff (those who will arrive early, and are dismissed early). There can even be certain electives (like P.E.) during the earlier hours. There are many teachers who arrive early to set things up (many teachers are past that 20-year-old sleep peak). Just set it up and go!
“This will mess up the bus schedules. They have to drop off elementary kids last, you know.”
Actually, those younger minds in elementary school should have the earlier bus drop-off. Yes, those younger kiddos wake up early and are running around the house within minutes! Those of you with younger kids know and those of you who went through this know as well! You may also know that teenagers wake late (it’s like pulling teeth getting them up and moving). So, why fight it? Build the bus schedule around your new times and have the bus routes pick up elementary students first, then middle school and high school students!
Parents with jobs
“I have to be at work at a certain time and I can’t be home before my shift is over. This will mess things up.”
Wait a moment. How will this mess things up? Isn’t it already messed up? Isn’t the current system already in the way? We have a daycare on every other street who have morning and afternoon drop-offs because it’s already an inconvenience.
Let me ask you this then. Who needs the hand-holding for bus pickup? The younger students! The older ones can go to the bus by themselves. So, you can drop off your elementary school child at the bus stop before you leave for work! Howe? Because they now have that super early bus pickup time! If you are doing daycare anyway, then now you only have to worry about after-school care and not have to worry about the morning anymore! Tell me that isn’t better!
The older kids are more likely to be able to make the bus stop for a later pick up time and will BE AWAKE to make sure they are on time! Then, in a typical 9-5 job, you can be available for their later sports games, or extracurricular activities, since it starts later! It’s a lot easier to ask the boss to leave at 5pm than at 3 or 4pm. Your older kids will come home after 5 or 6pm so you can make sure they are all set and not have to worry about what they might be doing when you are not home. It’s a win-win-win!
There are so many students who are getting too little sleep because of our stubbornness toward change. These kids and young adults are getting poorer scores, retaining less information, and are grumpier or, goodness forbid, Depressed because of this. We can’t change the physical and hormonal makeups of these kids’ brains. We CAN change the environmental factors around them. This includes the most influential and time consuming one of all. Our schools.
Sleep research recommends the change. Let’s start moving towards it.
Check out more brain research regarding the sleep cycles of teens at:
Scientific American’s article entitled Sleep Teens: High School Should Start Later in the Morning.
Oxford University who believes strongly enough to begin classes for thousands of GCSE students at 10am in a Country-wide (England) experiment. They hope to publish their results in 2018. You can read a little about it here.