Study: teens benefit from later school start

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© Steve Hix/Somos Images/Corbis

New research published this week in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine finds that, starting the school day just a half hour later was associated with significant benefits for teens — from better sleep and enhanced alertness to improved mood and overall well being. The findings contribute to a growing body of research on the subject and echo those of previous studies conducted in the last 14 years suggesting the benefits of delayed school start for teens. Yet, as Kyla Wahlstrom of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement points out in an accompanying editorial, accumulating evidence about the benefit of delayed start times is only one piece of the puzzle in actually implementing later school day starts for teens.

The study included 201 high school students at St. George’s, an independent school in Newport, Rhode Island. For two months — January 6 to March 6 of last year — the teens’ school day was pushed back from an 8:00am to an 8:30am start. The researchers found that even this relatively small delay was associated with a broad range of benefits. As in previous studies, students reported greater duration of sleep each night during the study period, but what was unexpected, researchers say, was that students were not only sleeping later in the morning, but also went to bed earlier as well. In total, during the two month study, students gained an average of 45 minutes’ sleep on school nights. In part this increase may have been due to “seasonal changes in bedtime” the researchers say, but at least anecdotally they found that some students reported trying to get to bed earlier as well after they noticed feeling better with an extra half hour’s sleep in the morning.

Additionally, the number of students getting by on fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night dropped by nearly 80% during the study period, and by the end of the two-month trial, the number of teens sleeping for at least 8 hours per night jumped from 16.4% to 54.7%. As you might expect with longer duration of sleep, surveys conducted at the beginning and end of the study period found that, after the delayed start time was implemented, students reported feeling more alert. They also were less likely to say they felt “too tired” for schoolwork or sports.

The researchers also found that, after the study period, fewer students reported feeling unhappy, depressed, irritated or annoyed, and average scores on what is known as a Depressed Mood Scale dropped. Additionally, teachers reported that fewer students skipped class or showed up late during the study period.

Of course, finding reasons that a delayed school day (and extra sleep for teens) may be beneficial is only a starting point for actually instituting new policies and changing school schedules — which can have a significant impact on parents, local businesses, transportation and myriad other issues Wahlstrom points out. But, gathering evidence and coupling it with rigorous studies of the impact and cost of delaying school starts is a critical first step toward optimizing educational opportunities, she argues. Only with all of the evidence in hand can administrators determine what is best for students, and society. As Wahlstrom concludes:

“Given what has been discovered thus far, changing the starting time of schools is a seemingly simple issue with incredibly sticky political dimensions. A final caveat is to be mindful that one solution does not fit all. It is through the development of shared knowledge of the facts and the concerns that a reasonable, local decision is reached. And the decision may ultimately be that a change is not feasible. So be it. The community at large is, after all, the final arbiter, as all must truly live with the consequences. Our teenagers need and deserve our best informed thinking about all of this; having the facts in hand is the best place to start.”