With the beginning of another school year upon us, parents and students are gearing up with back-to-school shopping and transitioning from summer schedules to early mornings. For teenagers, these early mornings are a challenge as many will find themselves nodding off during their classes as high school bells ring around 7:30 a.m. While parents and teachers may attribute falling asleep during class to staying up late checking Facebook statuses and texting with friends, medical evidence suggests that an early school start time before 8:30 a.m. is a greater culprit because classes are occurring when students’ brains and bodies are still in biological sleep mode.
In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation teenagers ages 13-19 have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. This is because in adolescents the brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. – the sleep phase shift. Early school start times interrupt this natural sleep pattern, leaving many high school students sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation negatively affects student learning and overall health which is why the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) conducted the first research study of its kind in 1996 to determine how shifting to a later school time impacts students and schools.
The School Start Time Study tracked high school students from two Minneapolis-area districts that changed to a later school start time from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. (Edina) and 8:40 a.m. (Minneapolis Public Schools). The results showed many positive benefits, including:
- Improved attendance and enrollment rates
- Less sleeping in class
- Less student-reported depression
- Fewer student visits to school counselors for behavioral and peer issues
- More even temperament at home
Five years later, a longitudinal follow-up study of the Minneapolis Public Schools revealed that the positive benefits continued to persist over time. Despite concerns from coaches, school administrators and teachers, the later high school start time did not affect enrollment in after-school sports and activities or increase transportation costs. In fact, coaches and teachers reported students were more mentally alert at the end of the day. Other Minnesota schools to adopt a later start time include: St. Louis Park, South Washington County and Mahtomedi. Today, several high schools in the Minneapolis Public School district will start their day at 8:30 a.m.
About the study
The School Start Time Study was recently featured in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development Vision 2020 blog written by Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI). Wahlstrom’s research focuses on the politics of change, professional development of teachers and leadership issues. Her research on the importance of later school start times garnered national recognition. Wahlstrom received the National Leadership Award for research having a national impact from the Minnesota Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in 2000. Learn more about Kyla Wahlstrom and the School Start Time Study at http://cehdvision2020.umn.edu/.