Commentary: Research Shows We Must Figure Out Ways to Get Our Kids More Sleep

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep Deprivation

The research on late start is pretty overwhelming.  Studies show that teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep, but get about 7.6 hours of sleep on average.  And that’s just on average – many probably get a good deal less than even that.

There are studies that link inadequate sleep to negative impacts on important brain functions essential to learning processes, but, just as importantly, inadequate sleep is also associated with higher rates of obesity and depression, lower levels of motivation and attentiveness, and increased rates of traffic accidents.

The educational field is in the midst of a very slow recognition of this problem and is trying to figure out the best way to address the problem.

But Bob Dunning is pushing back, arguing that the goals of reformers are positive, “but there’s very little evidence to back up the claim that an 8:30 a.m. start will result in more sleep.”

He sarcastically notes that “every Wednesday our kids have what’s called “late start” and all that seems to mean is that they get to stay up later on Tuesday night.”

He’s probably correct on that account.  But is the answer simply not to attempt to shift the way our youths get sleep, or to use the research and changes in policy as a teaching moment to retrain the adults to ensure their kids sleep more?

Mr. Dunning rightly notes as well that “a law mandating certain school start times would disrupt family schedules and create burdens for school districts.”

I don’t disagree with that point either.  For instance, our middle schooler on Wednesdays gets dropped off at the same time as before – he simply gets to relax for an extra hour and a half before starting school.

We definitely have to figure out a way to shift our cultural thinking because the research here is overwhelming.  All Mr. Dunning is pointing out is that change will be difficult.

Mr. Dunning argues that “one size does not fit all.”  He argues: “Kids in Alturas who get up early to milk the cows or gather eggs from the hen house are unlikely to benefit from a late start that ends up getting them home from school later as well.”

The problem with these arguments is he is arguing that people don’t start the day later, not that they wouldn’t benefit from doing so.

I agree with Mr. Dunning that late start would be a burden on those whose “work schedules have been set around the current start times and may have no leeway to changes those schedules.”

But how do we start changing our culture?  You don’t start changing our culture by ignoring the problem.

The title of his column is: “We aren’t doing kids any favors by letting them sleep in.”

While that point is not argued in his article, it is not clear that he is correct here.  I see a lot of parallels here to research on brain development, which has very slowly led to reforms in the juvenile justice system.

For years we increasingly treated juveniles as young adults.  We thrust them more and more into the adult justice system, particularly as crimes committed got more and more violent.

But a funny thing happened – as science of brain development advanced, we learned that juvenile brains were still developing.  We learned that the areas that developed most slowly were areas of judgment and impulse control, which is why as people age, they slowly start dropping out of criminal activities.

The current system does not have a full nexus between what we know about juvenile brain development and criminal justice policies, but slowly the system is evolving to incorporate our understanding of that system.

Along the same lines, we are learning more that children and teens also need more sleep to allow their brains to better develop and to allow them to better function.

The research by the CDC and US Department of Education noted, “Schools that have a start time of 8:30 AM or later allow adolescent students the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights: about 8.5 to 9.5 hours.”

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) also notes, “In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging middle and high schools to modify start times to no earlier than 8:30 AM to aid students in getting sufficient sleep to improve their overall health. School start time policies are not determined at the federal or state level, but at the district or individual school level. Future studies may determine whether this recommendation results in later school start times.”

Are we really doing kids no favors by thinking of ways to get them more sleep?  If the argument is that eventually they need to function in the adult world, I agree.  If the argument is that it will be difficult to both provide them with opportunities for additional sleep and structure their parents’ lives in a way to make it possible, I also agree.

However, the first step toward change is recognition of the problem.  The second step is finding workable solutions for that problem.

It seems just as the road to juvenile justice reform has been slow, the increasing recognition of brain development issues and the need for sleep will slowly win over to policy change.

In an article by Paul Kelley and Clark Lee, “Later School Start Times in Adolescence: Time for Change,” makes reference to these times.

They write, “While start times are typically set at the local level, leaders can help raise awareness of the overwhelming evidence that later starts are beneficial.”  They write, “The current context is one in which there is a growing pressure to change to later start times for adolescent students.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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11 thoughts on “Commentary: Research Shows We Must Figure Out Ways to Get Our Kids More Sleep”

  1. Ron Oertel

    From article: “For instance, our middle schooler on Wednesdays gets dropped off at the same time as before – he simply gets to relax for an extra hour and a half before starting school.”

    I guess he’s not biking to school, within the concrete-separated bike lane capital of the world. 😉

  2. Don Shor

    So the problem is, apparently, that teenagers are not getting enough sleep.

    Solution #1: tell your teenagers to go to bed earlier.

    Solution #2: “change the culture,” change school schedules, change the work schedules of the parents.

    Hm. I think the first solution is more efficient.

    the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging middle and high schools to modify start times to no earlier than 8:30 AM

    No matter what? I believe Period 1 starts at 8:15 at Davis High. Hard to imagine that fifteen minutes is going to make that much difference.


    1. Craig Ross

      Yeah that could work if you’re talking about white middle class stable families.  Maybe.  My parents were never home when I got to bed.

  3. Bill Marshall

    On a more serious note…

    Sleep is not the only thing… exercise is important… and ‘naps’/siestas, whatever… the healthiest I’ve been was when I was competing/training in tennis/cross country running… in HS…

    I joined the X-country/tennis teams to avoid the general PE classes… where (general PE), the teachers were generally obese and had no clue, intellectually… but they took on those roles for additional pay, and by union rules/influence/tenure…

    After practice/meets/matches, I often took a 30-45 minute “nap” before dinner… Dad, in a high stress job, often napped when returning home…  30-45 minutes, before dinner…

    Obesity has never been an issue for Dad or I… intellectually we were both ‘challenged’… I only graduated from HS tied for ninth in my class of 435, and had only 1580 of 1600 on the SAT’s…

    Sleep is overrated… rest, is damn critical… have known many who only slept ~ 6-7 hours, but exercised and took naps… they all did better than their cohort who had 8-9 hours of sleep…

    Again, schools have down-played exercise… this current thrust as to school hours smells like a ruse to adjust school hours to facilitate teacher’s unions’ desires for their workers to get to sleep in… the kernel of truth is, we need sleep, and rest… that’s for “reals”!

    But sleep is only one variable, and it bugs the hell out of me when folk, who should know better, try to propose a “silver bullet” based on one variable…

    Just an engineer (familiar with solving equations/problems with multiple variables) opining, so yeah, please feel free to ignore…


  4. Tia Will

    Every response here seems to imply that there is a single best answer for all. Just as there are differing needs for nightly sleep times for adolescents, so is there great variability in optimal rest times. My partner greatly benefits from a 30-40 minute nap. I need at least 2 hours to see any nap benefit. We both need a minimum of 8 hours sleep nightly to perform optimally ( and cheerfully).

    What we might want to consider is rather than changing the set hours of classes, allow the student to flex their time so as to put the most time into the courses that are most challenging to them while completing the course work that is easier for them on an expedited schedule. As long as they meet learning requirements, why are we so invested that they do it in lockstep?

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