CDC Finds Students Lacking Sleep, Urges Later School Start Times

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Education confirmed last week what most have suspected all along. Students aren’t getting enough sleep.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 AM. But the CDC report found that fewer than one in five middle and high schools in the U.S. began the school day at 8:30 AM or later. The study surveyed nearly 40,000 public middle, high, and combined schools during the 2011–2012 school year.

Among the findings in the report:

  • 42 states reported that at least 75 percent of their schools started before 8:30 AM
  • The average start time was 8:03 AM
  • Louisiana had the earliest average school start time (7:40 AM); Alaska had the latest (8:33 AM)

Science has taught us that sleep is vital in enhancing memory, but its benefits don’t begin or end there.

“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” said Anne Wheaton, PhD, lead author and epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Population Health. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

The report concluded that schools starting at 8:30 AM or later allow adolescent students the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep: at least 8.5 hours. But less than a third of U.S. high school students get eight hours or more of sleep on school nights.

Wheaton’s team cited the presence of computers, mobile phones, and televisions in the bedroom as contributing factors to sleep deprivation. Earlier this year, Learning Liftoff offered four ways to help create an environment to assist adolescents in getting more sleep.

Biological factors also play a role.

“In puberty, biological rhythms commonly shift so that adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning,” Wheaton’s team wrote. “The combination of delayed bedtimes and early school start times results in inadequate sleep for a large portion of the adolescent population.”

“Adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight; not engage in daily physical activity; suffer from depressive symptoms; engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco, and using illicit drugs; and perform poorly in school,” the report said.

Opponents of later starting times maintain that they limit the time available for extracurricular activities and practices. But the greatest obstacles preventing public schools from starting later are logistics and expenses. Municipalities often use the same buses to transport students in multiple grades, compelling them to stagger school starting times. More buses and drivers, or longer time for buses on the road, mean more costs—$21 million in the case of Montgomery County, Maryland, according to NBC News.

That county reached a compromise for 2015 by starting its elementary schools ten minutes later, its high schools 20 minutes later (7:45) and middle schools at 8:15.

“Although 20 minutes may not be ideal for extending sleep time for all high school students, it is a move in the right direction,” Patricia O’Neill, president of Montgomery County’s board of education, said in a statement.

Many families have discovered that the flexible start times that online schools provide becomes particularly advantageous when it comes to sleep. Students have the option of choosing their own start times and ensuring they get enough sleep to start the day, which helps them academically.

For more on the CDC’s efforts to promote sufficient sleep, visit the sleep section of the CDC website.

Featured Image – Flickr / CC by 2.0

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