More Evidence Supports Later School Start Times for Teens

Megan Brooks

June 11, 2019

SAN ANTONIO — A new study provides more evidence that middle and high school students benefit from starting school later in the morning (at or after 8:30 AM). Starting school later leads to increased sleep time, less sleepiness while doing homework, and improved academic engagement.

"The take-home message is that healthy school start times are critical for student sleep, health, and learning without negatively impacting other activities outside of the school day," Lisa Meltzer, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics, National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, told Medscape Medical News.

The study was presented here at SLEEP 2019: 33rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Sports May Take a Hit

Although it is now recommended that middle and high schools start at or after 8:30 AM, most districts in the United States do not have delayed start times.

In fall 2017, the Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colorado, delayed school start times for middle school by 50 minutes (from 8:00 AM to 8:50 AM) and for high school students by 70 minutes (from 7:10 AM to 8:20 AM).

Meltzer and colleagues examined what impact these later start times had on student sleep, extracurricular activities, homework, and academic engagement. More than 15,000 students in grades 6 to 11 completed online surveys before the start time change in the spring of 2017 and a year later after the delayed start times had gone into effect.

Results showed that 1 year after the change, self-reported sleep on school nights was 31 minutes longer among middle school students and 48 minutes longer among high school students.

"Similar to previous studies, we found a significant increase in the percentage of middle and high school students obtaining sufficient sleep on school nights and a significant reduction in weekend oversleep, a sign of clinical sleep deprivation. However, our sample is much larger than almost all of the previous studies," said Meltzer.

In addition, after the school start time delay, the percentage of students who reported feeling too sleepy to do their homework declined from 46% to 35% among middle school students and from 71% to 56% among high school students. Scores on a measure of academic engagement were significantly higher after the start time change for both middle school and high school students.

"With healthy school start times, students are more engaged at school and better able to complete their homework because they are not tired," said Meltzer.

Overall, middle school participation in sports decreased by 8%. Participation in high school sports, middle/high school activities, or high school employment decreased by less than 3% with later start times. "In general, healthy start times do not negatively impact participation in extracurricular sports and activities," said Meltzer.

Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Scott Siegfried said that the study supports feedback he's received from students in the 108-square-mile district.

"I don't know how many of our high school students have come up to me and said, 'This has changed my life for the better.' They've told me they're getting up to an hour of additional sleep before school starts," Siegfried commented in a news release.

"That extra sleep makes a real difference in terms of health and wellness. The input from our students and the numbers from this landmark study point to the same conclusion: The change in our start times has been a positive step and benefited our students' everyday routines," said Siegfried.

Findings Make Sense

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, American Academy of Sleep Medicine spokesperson Nitun Verma, MD, who is a sleep physician at AC Wellness, San Francisco, California, said, "During the time of development, when young people tend to be night owls and have delayed sleep phase, we are asking them to wake up early. The finding that high school students do better when school fits their schedule makes a lot of sense."

Verma said the slight decline in sports participation should not be overlooked.

"Sleep is really important, but sports are really important too, and I think there is an opportunity to have both, but that has to be worked out. With later start times, sports need to be protected. Schools need to look into making sleep and sports compatible," he said.

The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Meltzer and Verma have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2019: 33rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Abstract 0819. Presented June 12, 2019.

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