Start School Later for Older Kids, Doctors Urge
Opening bell should be no earlier than 8:30, says Academy of Pediatrics
By Amy Norton
MONDAY, Aug. 25, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. high schools and middle schools should start classes later in the morning to allow kids some much-needed sleep, a leading group of pediatricians is urging.
Ideally, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, the first bell should ring at 8:30 a.m. or later -- which is the case at only 15 percent of U.S. high schools right now.
At the very least, classes should start no earlier than 8 a.m., said Dr. Judith Owens, the lead author of a new academy policy statement on school start times.
The recommendations, published in the academy's journal Pediatrics, are based on research showing that U.S. kids are sleep-deprived, which has consequences for their health, school performance and safety.
"This is an important issue," said Dr. Marcel Deray, a Florida sleep specialist who wasn't involved in the recommendations.
"I see a lot of teenagers who are tired and have problems in school because they have to get up so early," said Deray, who directs the Sleep Disorders Center at Miami Children's Hospital. "Some kids are getting up at 5 a.m., 6 a.m."
Many people think the answer is for kids to just get to bed earlier, Owens noted. But it's not that easy, she said, because biology has other plans.
Around puberty, the body's natural sleep-wake cycle shifts, and it's actually hard for teenagers to fall asleep earlier than 11 p.m.
"Teenagers' bodies release melatonin later than (adults') do," Deray explained, referring to a hormone the brain secretes in the evening to induce drowsiness.
"The other issue," Owens said, "is that teenagers' sleep needs are greater than many people think. They need nine to nine-and-a-half hours."
Yet, 43 percent of U.S. public high schools start classes before 8 a.m., according to the U.S. Department of Education. Middle schools, meanwhile, typically start classes at 8 a.m. -- with about 20 percent starting earlier than that.
"And that's the first bell," Owens said. "That's not even counting the commute time."
So in areas where kids take the school bus, the actual school day could begin before sunrise.
According to Owens, U.S. high schools started bumping up start times back in the 1950s and '60s, mainly to space out bus runs. Many school districts start high schools and middle schools first, then circle buses back to pick up elementary school kids.
One option would be to flip elementary and high school start times, but parents often oppose that -- since young children could be standing at bus stops in the early-morning dark, or have no one at home after school. Another option -- running more buses -- would be expensive.