This week I attended a conference that changed my mind about when the kids in my community should get out of bed and start school.
I wasn’t thinking about sleep when I went to the annual symposium of the Ohio Adolescent Health Partnership (OAHP). I went to give a keynote address and spend time with several hundred really remarkable health and youth workers.
Throughout the day, I kept hearing about how important sleep is to teens’ health and development. I know there’s a national campaign to get middle and high schools to start school later, but I’ve not given it a lot of thought.
At a professional level, what I learned about this issue at the symposium is interesting. At a personal level, it’s unsettling.
Here's why: My oldest child started pre-K last month. At the beginning of the school year, we got a letter from the district superintendent talking about sleep and school start times. Over the summer, the district had debated whether to push back start times for older students. The letter explained why the district decided not to. Here are the chief reasons:
- The change would require more buses and new bus routes. That would cost too much.
- Elementary schools would have to start and end their class days earlier, so that the buses could then transport high schoolers later. This means that in the mornings, younger kids would have to stand in the dark waiting for buses, and in the afternoons they might get home before their parents, older siblings or teenage babysitters.
- Our high schoolers do not seem sleep deprived. They are strong athletes, high performers and college goers.
The superintendent’s response concerned me. This problem demands a creative and youth-centered response. The district’s decision works against what we know about adolescent health and development.
Not that I was about to do anything. As a former school administrator, I get the business-like reasoning. As the mama of young children, I don't want my boys waiting for their school bus in predawn darkness, nor do I want them unsupervised after school.
Then I went to the OAHP symposium, where I got an unexpected education about teens, sleep and school start times. Speakers explained why teens typically have a hard time falling asleep earlier than 11 p.m.: It’s how their bodies are programmed.
In addition to that, they need at least 8.5 hours of sleep each night. Yet most middle and high schools start classes at around 7:30 a.m., and the kids wake up well before that to get ready and to make the commute.
Just as important for me was realizing why anyone would care even if they don’t have kids in high school. This is everybody’s problem. Symposium presenters talked about how nine out of 10 teens is sleep-deprived. That means that almost every teen you know is at increased risk of:
- Getting in a car accident
- Flunking an assignment or class
- Struggling to stay focused
- Getting injured while playing sports
- Being (even more) moody
- Getting sick
The argument that teens should start school later is not new. Back in 2011, the CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment (where I now work) wrote about this very issue. What is new are efforts like the Start School Later campaign and the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has tweeted his support of this idea.
With this information, I’m going to fight for what’s right and healthy for my local teens and for the community where I live. I hope that you will do the same.
Here are two more resources you can use to learn more and spread the word: