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Editorial: Study shows later start to school day helps teens

Research of Seattle schools’ later start shows students are sleeping more and doing better in class.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Thanks to a pioneering effort by Seattle Public Schools, there’s added evidence to what we’ve heard from pediatricians, sleep researchers, educators and others for many years: A later start to the day at middle schools and high schools may allow teenagers to get more sleep at night, and that’s showing improvements in attendance and academic performance.

Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, Seattle schools made the change — a significant one that involved adjustments to bus, after-school sports, student work and family schedules — to move the start of the day’s schedule by nearly an hour to 8:45 a.m. from 7:50 a.m.

For most school districts in Snohomish County, middle school and high school students start their school days between 7:20 and 7:45 a.m. Arlington students have the latest school start times at 8 a.m. For students with “zero” periods — elective activities before first period — the day can start even earlier.

Researchers with the University of Washington found that teens — rather than just using the shift in start time as an opportunity to stay up later — are using the delayed start to their days to get more sleep. The research, published in the journal Science Advances, found that on average students slept 34 minutes more each night, increasing their sleep time from 6 hours and 50 minutes to 7 hours and 24 minutes.

For the study, researchers followed separate groups of sophomores attending biology classes at Franklin and Roosevelt high schools, first in 2016 before the schedule change was made, and again in 2017 after the switch. Wrist monitors tracked students’ sleep for two weeks, recording light and activity levels to measure how much they actually slept.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends teens between 14 and 17 years get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, but recent CDC report showed more than two-thirds of students were sleeping seven hours or less, and nearly 4 in 10 were sleeping six hours or less.

While not a full eight hours, a little more than a half-hour more of sleep for the Seattle students resulted in a reduction in sleepiness for the students and more attentiveness in the day’s early classes. While both high schools saw improvements, Franklin High sophomores in first-period classes between the two years showed a marked reduction in absences and tardiness, enough that it brought Franklin, with more low-income students, more in line for absences and tardiness as Seattle schools in higher-income neighborhoods.

The researchers admit it’s harder to directly attribute higher grades to the later start time, based on the limited data; still, grades did improve by about 4.5 percent for students at both schools.

The results won’t surprise children’s health advocates, who have pressed for increasing the amount of sleep that children get, and for reasons that go beyond academics.

A lack of sleep, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have said, mean that children between 11 and 18 are more likely to perform poorly in school; be overweight; not get enough daily physical activity; suffer from symptoms of depression and engage in unhealthy behaviors, including drinking, smoking and using illicit drugs.

And a 2016 CDC study noted that insufficient sleep among teens is associated with a higher risk for injuries from accidents caused by drowsy driving. Students who slept seven hours or less, the report found, were more likely to report injury-related risk behaviors, such as infrequent use of bicycle helmets and seat belts, drinking and driving or riding with a driver who had been drinking, and texting while driving, as compared to students who slept nine hours.

Even with the increase in the numbers of studies with the message that children and teens need more sleep than many get, most high schools have stuck with an early start to the day. The National Center for Education Statistics, reports that the average start time was about 8 a.m. and only 9.6 percent of high schools started classes between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Less than 4 percent start at 9 a.m. or later. Nearly 52 percent started between 8 and 8:30 a.m.

Making the switch to a later start time isn’t a simple change. For many districts it would involve increased transportation costs and coordination with other districts regarding sports and other extra-curricular activities. But surveys of Seattle parents have found that most families have adjusted to the new schedules, The Seattle Times reported.

Seattle’s experience and the new research shows the promise in allowing students the opportunity to get more sleep and be better prepared for the school day. And that might allow parents to sleep better at night, too.

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