Researchers Disagree with Later Start Time Findings


Back in early February, the school board unanimously moved forward with a request to create an implementation plan for a later start for high school and junior high students. As Board President Alan Fernandes stated in his motion, “We believe the positive benefits of adequate sleep align with, and are central to, our mission  which focuses on the well-being of our students and goals of creating optimal conditions for learning.”

In his motion, he stated, “’School Start Times for Adolescents’ is a policy statement published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.” According to this article, Mr. Fernandes continued, “the research clearly demonstrates that sleep deprivation is linked to increased rates of obesity and depression among youth.”

The article goes on to argue that a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later is an easy fix that will mitigate problems caused by sleep deprivation among American adolescents and is an important step schools can do to improve the health and well-being of children.”

The motion was largely based on an August 2014 release from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which “recommends middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”

However, Professor Ian Campbell and Dr. Irwin Feinberg, in an article that will be published this weekend in the local paper, believe that the APP’s policy statement “is useful in emphasizing the deleterious effects of insufficient sleep. We believe that insufficient sleep is harmful at any age but particularly so in children and adolescents,” but at the same time they believe that the statement “overstates the extent of adolescent sleep deficiency.”

They argue, instead, that “its recommended sleep durations are not based on experimental data. Moreover, the AAP statement does not consider less intrusive remedies for increasing sleep durations.”

Sleep deprivation, according to these studies, has reached epidemic proportion, as a “National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.”

The report cites a number of reasons for teens’ lack of sleep, including “homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology that can keep them up late on week nights.”

While these are important factors and the AAP recommends pediatricians work with parents and teens about healthy sleep habits, they primarily argue that “the evidence strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents.”

The report estimates that 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.

“Napping, extending sleep on weekends, and caffeine consumption can temporarily counteract sleepiness, but they do not restore optimal alertness and are not a substitute for regular, sufficient sleep,” according to the AAP.

“The AAP urges middle and high schools to aim for start times that allow students to receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night. In most cases, this will mean a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later, though schools should also consider average commuting times and other local factors,” the report continues.

“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” Dr. Judith Owens, MD, said. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”

However, Professor Campbell and Dr. Feinberg argue, “The AAP overstates adolescent sleep loss by accepting the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation that children between the ages of 10 and 17 need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night. There is no rigorous scientific evidence that supports this recommendation.”

They argue, “It is implausible that the amount of sleep that is biologically needed does not change between age 10 and 17 years.”

They present their own study, arguing, “Our longitudinal data also demonstrate that sleep duration decreases by 10 minutes per year between ages 9 and 18. The decrease was not composed of both reduced NREM [non-rapid eye movement] and REM sleep, as would be expected if it were caused by truncated time in bed. Instead, the reduction in sleep time across adolescence was entirely composed of reduced NREM sleep.

“This is further evidence (along with the massive reduction in deep sleep) that the need for sleep recuperation declines across adolescence. We and others believe that the decline in recuperative need results from a brain maturational process that streamlines circuits by eliminating excess connections (‘synaptic pruning’).”

They are careful not to deny that “some adolescents are sleep-deprived.” However, “We firmly reject the proposition that 87 percent of U.S. high school students are sleep-deprived.”

They argue, “Our ongoing study is attempting to obtain rigorous evidence on the relation of sleep duration to daytime performance and how this relation changes across adolescence. The results of this study will contribute to evidence-based recommendations for adolescent sleep durations.

“It is possible that our data will show that 8.5 to 9.5 hours is an appropriate recommendation. However, there are at present no dose-response data that justify this recommendation, and the notion that sleep need does not change across adolescence flies in the face of common observation.”

However, other research disagrees.

In the February 2011 edition of Psychology Today, Dr. John Cline argues that later school start times alone really help high school students.

“So, do later school times really help high school students?” Dr. Cline asks. “Based on accumulating evidence, the answer is unequivocally yes. Increasing numbers of studies conducted in various parts of the country show that a change in the start time of the school day can make a significant positive change in the lives of  students.”

Dr. Cline notes that “many high school students live in what Dr. Mary Carskadon calls a continuous state of jet lag” and the key research suggests that “starting school later could help students get more sleep. Starting classes later, closer to when their biological clocks are most ready for learning, could make a real difference in how much knowledge a teen acquires at school.”

In the end, Professor Campbell and Dr. Feinberg write that there “is simply insufficient evidence to support the view that later school start times would be more helpful than other interventions.”

They conclude, “By raising this important topic for discussion, the Davis Board of Education has taken an important step that demonstrates to the Davis community the importance it attaches to adequate sleep for learning and adolescent health.”

They recommend “less drastic changes in school schedules combined with educational programs that provide guidelines for adequate sleep durations (adjusted for age) might improve outcomes without the disadvantages of requiring an 8:30 a.m. start time for all students.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. sisterhood

    I think later start times is a good idea, but I still raise the question of parents who need to be at work by a certain time. North Davis Elementary used to ban children on campus in the morning, before school. I had to pay CDC to watch both of my children, Even though it was only 15 minutes, I believe I had to pay them for a whole hour. Changing the start time means many parents will have to pay more for childcare, since most employers will not allow them to change their schedule.

    1. aaahirsch8

      I hope by high school age you don’t still think the kids need morning child care at CDC.

      We are only talking delayed start for high schoolers and Jr Hi kids here.

      Of course, helicopter parents may feel differently……(Grin)

  2. Anon

    I cannot believe that anyone would think a half hour later start time would do much of anything to improve a student’s academic performance.  This is a solution in search of a problem IMO, when there are so many more important problems to address.

    If the DJUSD really thinks this is such a good idea, and go ahead and implement it, then I think they need to make sure and collect data to determine if it really does improve academic performance.  My guess is you will see no change whatever.  How embarrassing will that be?

    1. David Greenwald

      ” This is a solution in search of a problem IMO, when there are so many more important problems to address.”

      I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. There is a clear problems – sleep deprivation. That is well documented. The cause of that sleep deprivation and the solutions are in questions. But this is not a solution in search of a problem, but rather a problem in search of (perhaps) an appropriate solution.

      1. Anon

        Fair enough – this is a problem in search of an appropriate solution, and an early start time of 1/2 hour is not going to address it.  Frankly (no relation to commenter Frankly), the DJUSD has no real control over the issue of sleep deprivation – that is an issue for parents to address.  If the DJUSD wanted to do a bit of parental education, I would be okay with that.  But I can remember as a kid staying up reading books into the wee hours of the morning, and somehow I managed to attain high academic achievements.

        I personally believe this is a problem being hyped to avoid the more pressing problems in our schools, e.g. bullying, dealing with Common Core, etc.

        1. Davis Progressive

          “I personally believe this is a problem being hyped to avoid the more pressing problems in our schools, e.g. bullying, dealing with Common Core, etc.”

          that assumes that a relatively large staff of people can only deal with one issue.  i know that they have attempted to implement a lot of new policies on bullying and discipline and we’ll have to see how well those work.  they have no choice but to deal with common and core and i know that’s a major priority.

    1. Anon

      You honestly believe a 1/2 hour later start will significantly impact the academic performance of students?  If you do, then you should not be opposed to the school being forced to collect data to prove/disprove that this is an “appropriate” solution to a problem.

  3. hpierce

    What am I missing?  Why can’t parents have their children shut off TV, internet, texting and other stimulation earlier in the evening, and have the children go to bed earlier?

      1. hpierce

        Ok.  So for the kids whose parents are not monitoring them well, isn’t it likely the kids will stay up a half-hour later? If they do, same problem but the better parents (those who work) will be further burdened.  How is the “solution” effective?

        1. hpierce

          Understand your reply. Dismissive  The old “if you knew what I knew” ploy.  Nice.

          The research I’ll be interested in is if DJUSD implements this, how will outcomes change in the next 5-10 years.

          After your flip response, DP, I see no reason to further engage with you on this matter.  To an extent, I don’t give a damn, as if it is ineffective, or deleterious, it’s not my children nor theirs who will be affected.

          It is my understanding that currently, Jr High & HS students already have the option of not having a scheduled first period.  I wonder if a later “early” time will mean that option of start times will end.

        2. Davis Progressive

          it wasn’t a flip answer, just the maximum i could do on my phone.  my kids are grown as well, but if you read the research the vanguard or enterprise have reported on, it’s more than just the extra half hour of sleep that appears to be important.

    1. MrsW

      “It is my understanding that currently, Jr High & HS students already have the option of not having a scheduled first period.  I wonder if a later “early” time will mean that option of start times will end.”

      The idea that not having a scheduled first period is “an option” is not exactly true.  I cannot remember the exact number, but Davis Senior High School has a HUGE number of “singleton” courses.  A singleton course means that the class is only offered once a day.  There are a number of consequences of offering so many singleton courses.  If the class is only offered first period, your “options” are restricted and  you have to take the course first period.  Unlike college, the schedule is not published before your child signs up for classes, though a family may have an idea about the traditional schedule from talking to parents of older children.  

      [Another consequence of singleton courses is tracking without calling it “tracking.”  For example, Japanese 1 will directly bear on when one group of students is taking English and Social Studies, while Auto Shop will directly bear on when another student is taking English and Social Studies.]

  4. MrsW

    I see this initiative as a consequence of parents of older children, who have been through it, trying to share with parents of younger children, their lessons learned. People are being community-minded! Speaking from experience, turning off the electronics, insisting your child go to bed early, etc.  It’s not enough.  Parents have been parenting. Parents are still parenting.  Parents want to help each other.  Isn’t that how we should be treating each other?

    No rigorous study that says adolescents need 8.5 – 9.5 hours of sleep?  How is that relevant to Davis Senior High School?  We’re talking about 6 or 7 hours of sleep!  A large number of teenage bodies won’t let them fall asleep before midnight.  If you can’t fall asleep before midnight, 30 minutes in the morning is a lot.  We’re talking about getting 7 or 7.5 hours of sleep instead of 6.5 or 7.  That is no where near even 8.5 hours.

    I’ve brought up Zero Period before and I hope they make it part of the discussion.  Zero period is used by Independent Lifetime Sports, Football’s off-season training, the Ski Club and others.  A recipe for turning a student into an absolute mess is to have football practice go over time 4:30-7:30pm, come home to decompress, have dinner, complete homework, not be able to fall asleep until midnight, and get up at 5:45 am for Independent Lifetime Sports.  Hope you don’t have a test that day.

  5. aaahirsch8

    Everyone has opinions, but if you haven’t raised child in the era of 24 x 7 stimulation of blue screen Circadian rhythm resetting devices like chrome books and smart phones, and where social media /the internet is kids life line to their friends–and they can’t just turn off the computers early as they are essential to do homework late at night, you really don’t know what its like for kids these days.

    I am an older parent and I remember when the LATE SHOW began at 1o:30 as it was expected all kids were in bed…..


    1. Anon

      Like I said, as a kid I used to stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading books.  And somehow I managed to do quite well in school. It is hard for me to believe that a 1/2 hour later start to school is going to make any significant difference.

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