Friday, November 22, 2019
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Balto. Co. goes the other way on teen sleep

Some high schools in Baltimore County, Md., will ring the first bell earlier this fall, a change that boggles the mind of many child advocates, the Baltimore Sun reports.


6:00 just won’t do it for Baltimore County high school students this fall. Some will board buses at 5:45 AM.

Owings Mills and Randallstown high schools will ring the first bell at 7:25, and Pikesville and Franklin high schools at 7:40. These times are about an hour earlier than they should be, and all four times are earlier than they were in the 2014-15 school year (Owings Mills and Randallstown by 10 minutes, Pikesville and Franklin by 5 minutes).

In the face of research-backed calls to start high school schedules later in the morning, advanced by basically everyone from pediatricians to parents, Baltimore County Public Schools, the nation’s 25th-largest school district, is moving in the opposite direction.

In March 2013, Voxitatis reported that the school board in Anne Arundel County, Md., issued a report spelling out various strategies for starting the school day for high school students later than the current 7:17 AM bell schedule. The report was skeptical about itself, saying, “Were high schools to start later, what evidence is there that students will not simply stay up later to compensate for the later start time, thereby negating any positive impact upon wellness?”

We’ve been telling people exactly what evidence there is about this for years, but let’s add this: In Snooze … or Lose!, a book from the National Academies Press, neurologist Helene Emsellem, medical director at the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md., explains:

Contrary to what you might think, teens whose schools have later start times do use the extra time for sleep; they don’t stay up later, but go to sleep at the same time they always have and sleep later in the morning.

That opinion is backed by decades of research as well as common sense derived from an understanding of circadian rhythms, a lesson skeptics should remember from their high school biology classes.

Teens just won’t squander the extra sleeping time. Sure, a few of them might stay up a few extra hours every now and then, but their bodies are programmed to sleep. They’re going to sleep, which means that, on average, they will go to bed at about the same time, regardless of what time school starts, probably about 10:45 PM.

The only difference is, when they get to school, they’re going to learn better and be happier about the school experience if school starts later. Dr Emsellem continued:

After the high schools in the Arlington, Va., public school system moved their start times from 7:30 to 8:15 AM, students reported in a survey that they felt more alert and prepared for school and teachers reported improvement in both student alertness and participation. Parents noted that their teens had a much better attitude. Other schools … reported significant reductions in school dropout rates, less student depression, and higher student grades as well as a number of other extremely positive outcomes.

In addition to the research we cited back in 2013 and the research quoted above, some new research out of the University of Minnesota says that pushing back start times to 8:40 from 7:20 in schools in Minneapolis resulted in an average of five hours of sleep more for students per week. And many of the same positive effects Dr Emsellem observed were seen in the Minneapolis students as well, including:

  • Improved attendance and enrollment rates
  • Less sleeping in class
  • Less student-reported depression
  • More even temperament at home
  • Fewer student visits to school counselors for behavioral and peer issues

I don’t really know how this could be any simpler. Decades of research support starting school at a time that is more consistent with teenagers’ natural sleep cycle. Voxitatis, once again, echos the strong recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics in calling on school districts to set the first bell in our high schools at 8:30 or later.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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