December 14 2016

School Officials Discuss the Science Behind Later High School Start Times

By: Rich Hosford

The Burlington School Committee had a detailed discussion on the science behind later start times for high school students during their meeting this week.

The talk was led by Superintendent Eric Conti who went through a presentation by Dr. Judith Owens, Director of Sleep Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Conti started out by going over some of the “myths and misconceptions” around later start times. These include “teens would go to sleep earlier if their parents made them”, “some teens might need nine hours of sleep but mine are fine with just six”, “if school starts later they’ll just stay up later” and “teens can just make up lost sleep by sleeping in on the weekends.”

He said Owens’ research shows that both sleep time and sleep timing are “biological imperatives” that differ for teens and adults. In the presentation Owens says it is almost impossible for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. due to internal clocks in the brain and in each cell in the body that “must be synchronized with one another and the environment.” She says teens tend to have an internal clock “forbidden zone” between 8 and 11 p.m. where falling asleep is very difficult.

Earlier school start times, Owens argues, mean teens’ sleep rhythms are often off, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep and to wake up.

Owens says most children in the United States, especially those in their junior and senior years, report not getting eight or more hours of sleep a night, which she says is a problem.

“For optimal health, safety and achievement the 2016 the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 8-10 hours of sleep for 13-18 year olds,” the presentation states.

A lack of sleep can have an impact on cognitive function she said and can negatively affect: flexibility, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, divergent thinking, judgement, motivation, monitoring and modifying behavior and modulation of emotions.

Owens also says adolescents who are sleep deprived are much more likely to report depression and have suicidal thoughts.

She also says that insufficient sleep can lead to teens engaging in risky behaviors because it is linked to changes in reward-related decision making. This means they may perceive less negative consequences for their actions.

“Sleep duration is a significant negative predictor for alcohol-related problems such as binge drinking, driving while drunk, and engaging in activities while drinking that one later regrets,” Owens writes in the presentation.

Finally the report states that insufficient sleep can be the cause of accidental injuries. Owens says that driver aged 16-25 years of age are involved in more than 50 percent of the 100,000 fatigue-related crashes each year and 68 percent of high school seniors report having driven while drowsy.

Owens says that in schools that have adopted later school times, even if it’s just 30 minutes later, improvements have been seen. The report says attendance improves,  tardiness is reduced and drop-out rates decline. She also says test scores and grades improve.

Conti said there are still a lot of details to work out and the school department isn’t looking to make any changes before the fall of 2018.

First, they would have to work out bus schedules. He said he did have some options from the schools’ bus company to discuss but nothing is set in stone.

He also said there needed to be much more discussion with teachers, school employees, parents and students. They are also working to figure out logistics for things like sports with area school districts.

Members of the School Committee were open to continue the discussion and said they appreciated the presentation.

“This is nice additional research to have,” Martha Simon said, adding she’s also interested in whether it would be possible to have later start times at the middle school level. “I’d like us to at least consider what it would take to put the middle school in a new time slot. Maybe we can’t do it right away but want to keep it in our minds.”

Member Kristin Russo said she thinks people who believe later school start times is just coddling teenagers need to see research like this.

“People think teens are lazy and don’t want to get up but when you do research and read you realize its biological and not as simple as that,” she said. “We need to help educate parents so they know what their teenagers are going through.”

The issue will be taken up at future School Committee meetings.


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