Why do schools start at dark-o’clock in the morning?

Our children’s sleep habits change almost immediately after school lets out for the summer.

It doesn’t matter how much sleep they’ve gotten or when they went to bed. One or both of them can saw logs through 7:30 am – no problem. This is, of course, in stark contrast to a typical school morning when we have to drag them both out of bed about an hour and a half earlier.

During the school year, I find myself missing the toddler days when they would bound out of bed at 5:45 am (and that moment at 5:46 am, when you realize you’re not going back to sleep, is hard to miss).

I’m not too different from my children. To be honest, one of the reasons I left high school teaching was because I found it emotionally draining to get up early enough to be prepared, functional and verbal at 7:25 am. This was the time that the “warning bell” rang at the high school and class began.

So let’s back this up: To be in my classroom at 7:25 am, I had to be at the copy machine at 6:55, at the computer making printouts at 6:45, in the parking lot at 6:30 (it was a big campus), leaving my house at about 5:30 (no later than 5:45).

To be in the classroom at the ready at 7:25, I regularly set my alarm for 4:45 am, and that’s assuming I knew exactly what I would be teaching the next morning before I went to bed.

Even after all that effort, it’s worth mentioning that if there’s one way to kill a love of learning in our nation’s adolescents, it’s talking to them about Jacksonian Democracy at 7:30 am on a Monday in February. Relatedly, if there’s one way to kill a love of teaching in an adult, it’s asking them to ignite in their students a love of learning at this obscenely early hour. 

Why do schools start so early?

In any effort to reform our nation’s schools – even something as simple as start times – we need to first uncover why it it is the way it is. Many folks know that the academic year was initially built around a farming schedule and leaves a wide berth during the long summer months for children to help their parents on the farm. I know how much you all rely on your children to bring in the harvest, so I’ll leave that one alone for now. Anyway, none of that history really explains the typical start time for a school day, and that’s because early start times are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Most studies attribute early start times to the increasing role that extra-curricular activities (e.g. sports and clubs) play in the lives of the American adolescent. Add to that the need to coordinate game schedules with other districts, busing schedules for all of the district’s children, complex teaching schedules that often have multiple teachers sharing expensive resources, and managing specialists’ schedules (i.e. art, music, phys ed.), and it becomes pretty clear why the easiest solution seems to be to start the school day earlier.  One look at a building principal’s “master schedule” might elicit some sympathy in even the staunchest opponents of early start times.

Despite the rationale behind the shift in school start times, there is overwhelming medical consensus about what it does to adolescents. Research has demonstrated time and time again how backward these start times are, and the toll it takes on adolescents’ physical safety, emotional well-being, and academic success.

The negative consequences of early start times

Many studies published in medical journals acknowledge how early start times work in cross-purposes to the naturally late “sleepy time” for adolescents. Several studies note that adolescents don’t produce enough melatonin to feel sleepy until about 11 pm. So, it follows that waking up an adolescent at 7 am is the equivalent of waking up an adult at 4 am.” I would add that most kids need to be in school at 7 am, not just waking up, so I would correct their statement to read, “waking an adolescent at 6 am is the equivalent of waking up an adult at 3 am.”

Either way you slice it, it is as unappealing to me as it probably is to you.

It’s not simply a matter of interrupting adolescent sleep cycles. One study found that sleep deprivation from early start times played a role in growing obesity rates and risk behavior in adolescents. This makes plenty of good sense to me, since I regularly see the link between exhaustion and risk behaviors in my own child. The clearest indication that our five-year-old is overtired is the rapid increase in her total defiance of our basic and most commonplace rules.

Early start times aren’t just inconvenient or annoying or impossible to get your body used to (owing, again, to the fact these are physiologically appropriate cycles). Early start times increase daytime sleepiness, depression and caffeine use in adolescents. At the end of the day adolescents are children – just older – and children + caffeine = negative health consequences.

Let us try to forget for a moment that later start times result in adolescents who are better rested, less moody and depressed, less stimulant-addicted and less likely to crash their cars. Let’s just push that aside and consider this: Later start times have the impact that decades of school reform have struggled to produce – they actually improve student academic achievement.

Everyone say it with me… “DUH!”

Later start times improve academic achievement

I think what I am saying here is that it’s a little easier for an adolescent to understand Jacksonian Democracy at 10:30 am than it is at 7:30 am. Most of this has to do with the very simple idea that it’s much easier to learn when you’re conscious. Another very simple thing is that kids who are well rested register fewer absences during the school year, and they even come to school on time. It doesn’t boggle the mind to understand how both of those behaviors lead to significant increases in academic performance. It’s not rocket science (though it is neuroscience).

So, the research on adolescents is incontrovertible. What about younger children? While very few studies exist on the impact of earlier start times for elementary-aged students, one of those few studies suggests that younger children don’t experience a significant impact in their total sleep time as a result of earlier start times. (Remember your toddler waking you up at 5:45 am on Saturday?)

Let’s also acknowledge the fact that younger children require less prep-time to get ready for school. There is very little social stigma for a child under a certain age – I imagine the cut off to be about eight – to literally roll out of bed, eat breakfast and go to school. Beyond that age, the time it takes to get ready in the morning grows longer and longer. We should be delaying start times for adolescents just to give them en0ugh time to perfect their emo makeup and manage their Bieber swoosh.

Some alternative models to the “dark-o’clock” start

So, why not just reverse the schedules so younger children are headed to school first and older children catch the bus after them? Some would voice concern here over their five year old standing in the dark at the bus stop. I would be among them, because we can’t settle for a model that endangers younger children.

But let’s be clear, if we can create a whole system of time zones so people on trains can remain diurnal, and if nearly our whole nation can change their clocks in unison twice a year, surely we don’t need to have our adolescents bearing the brunt in this totally wrong model. We are pretty smart people, there has to be a way to adjust that master schedule.

Aside from reversing the busing schedule and school start times between elementary and high schools, we might also consider a full-switch to athletic training in the morning. I would prefer to run two miles in the morning in September versus the mid-afternoon (the hottest hours of the day). These are only a few ideas.

Take it up with your PTA

An organization called StartSchoolLater.net chronicles the success stories that many districts have experienced in establishing later school start times, and every effort takes a slightly different angle to achieve success. You’d be surprised how many districts have explicitly adjusted their schedules in response to the overwhelming empirical evidence about adolescent sleep deprivation.

Parents can be pretty powerful in this regard if we stop aiming our outrage and exhaustion toward our parenting partners and start directing it in a focused way toward the people who can impact some real change. This would be an appropriate initiative for a well-organized PTA/PTG to appeal to local school boards.

Figure out what it would take. While you’re fighting the fight, just keep in mind the people that have to deal with that crazy master schedule. They’re not ignoring research out of malice, they’re dealing with the tough reality of managing multiple and often conflicting schedules. We’re all maniacs during the school year, and a special kind of maniac in the morning. This change is long overdue and research has shown it is worth the effort.

2 thoughts on “Why do schools start at dark-o’clock in the morning?

  1. My conclusion after watching the politics of change over the past 15 years or so is that individual efforts by isolated communities are necessary but not sufficient, usually doomed to fail without simultaneous efforts (advocacy, legislative, educational, etc.) efforts at the state and national level. This is consistent with my knowledge of other public health and other social reforms in this country. It is also the thinking behind Start School Later (www.startschoollater.net), a national non-profit that supports efforts of local chapters. –Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Start School Later, Inc.

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    • Dr. Ziporyn Snider,

      Yours is such an important clarification. I think you’re right – People cannot do it in isolation which is why they should check out startschoolslater.org and get networked with other likeminded folks 😉

      To some degree I think it is because education research and mental health/adolescent psych research don’t “talk to each other” enough. There is so much consensus in research findings but no action. It’s been difficult to make it the centerpiece of the reform agenda. This change is long past due.

      Thanks for your comments and your ongoing work!
      Dianna

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