Guest editorial: Teenage brains aren’t wired for morning thinking
May 26, 2015
What’s that "zzzzzzzzz" sound coming from Park City High School? It’s teenagers sleeping through first period. As the mom of three teen morning-haters, I support the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later.
The statement says, "Research studies of sleep patterns in adolescents demonstrate that delaying school start times is an effective strategy to reverse chronic sleep loss, which can impair mental health, physical health, safety, and academic achievement." Numerous studies and support information can be found at The National Sleep Foundation’s (NSF) website: http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/school-start-time-and-sleep.
According to the NSF, teenage biological sleep patterns shift towards later times for sleeping and waking. This means teenagers naturally have difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m. Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep, and early school start times result in sleepy students.
My son, Max Johansen, a high school senior; struggles during first period to comprehend complex AP Physics concepts. He feels physics, and other difficult classes, would be understood better if taught later. A NSF poll shows as many as 28 percent of students are falling asleep during 1st period.
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.) leads the fight to adjust school start times for adolescents. Her legislation would address the effect of school start times on teenage mental and physical health, as well as academic performance.
Research supports late starts for teens, but why aren’t all high schools adjusting? Bussing challenges are the biggest hurdle to overcome. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education says, "Too many school systems are designed to be good for buses rather than children."
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Opponents to later start times worry about bus scheduling conflicts and financial concerns. Schools in 43 states have overcome these obstacles and have implemented later start times for teens or will do so next year. In fact, suburban school district Edina, Minn. (6,800 students) and urban district Minneapolis, Minn. (50,000 students) use the same bus routes and have adjusted the bus route times without increasing transportation costs. Other districts have voted to keep start times later for all schools and have found investing in additional busses worthwhile.
Other "hot" issues include teacher staffing and sports/extra-curricular activity impacts. Although many teachers oppose later start times due to traffic concerns, decreased family time, and other issues; the Edina and Minneapolis school districts have found solutions. These schools have used flexible teacher schedules and teacher buy-in to trade late starts for alert, engaged kids. One year after the Minneapolis Public School District switched to an 8:40 a.m. start, the majority of teachers surveyed reported students were more alert during the first two periods of the day.
Students have overcome negative late-start issues as well. Teens needing flexibility for athletics and extra-curricular activities have scheduled study halls and free periods at the end of the day. Also, in some cases, student athletes have received exemptions from P.E. credit requirements. Additionally, some schools have raised funds to light outdoors fields.
Teenage brains aren’t wired for morning thinking, but how can concerned parties help change school start times? Some school districts are already considering this. My school district, the Park City School District, is on board. Dr. Ember Conley, PCSD Superintendent, has assembled a task force of school administrators, staff and parents to research start times.
Additionally, concerned parties can start a local petition, like Park City community member, Dr. John Hanrahan. His petition: Help Our Teens Thrive Better In School (http://bit.ly/1FNEvZa) has 379 signatures. Or sign a national petition along with 10,885 others: Promote Legislation to prevent public schools from starting before 8 a.m. (http://bit.ly/1ji88oy). And finally, voice your opinion to community stakeholders and legislators. Please help ignite teenage brains by stoking this fire.