Does Your School Start Too Early in the Morning? (with Lesson Plan)

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How's this for a rude awakening?

The average adolescent in the U.S. is "chronically sleep deprived and pathologically tired."

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That's according to a 2014 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which describes an "epidemic" of sleep deprivation among America's middle and high school students. Roughly 70 percent of U.S. teenagers don't get anywhere near the recommended nightly minimum of 8.5 hours each night.

Such deprivation, sleep researchers argue, can affect academic performance and contribute to the prevalence of serious health problems like depression, obesity and car crashes -- the number one killer of teens in the U.S.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the AAP's “School Start Times for Adolescents” report, which recommends that middle and high schools push back start times to 8:30 a.m. or later.


“Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn," she writes. Doing so would align to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles -- or circadian rhythms --  shift up to two hours later when puberty begins. For more on this, check out our totally energizing Above the Noise video (better than a shot of espresso, I promise).

The APP's recommendation, supported by a growing number of other public health groups, is the basis for new California legislation that would mandate publicly funded middle and high schools throughout the state to push back their school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later.

The bill -- SB 328 -- which already passed in the state Senate and now heads to the Assembly, is the first statewide bill of its kind in the country. Districts would have until July 2020 to adjust their schedules. Most would presumably end the school day later.

If it passes, the bill would delay the start of first period for the more than 3 million middle and high school students in California, where schools now abide by a hodgepodge of start times. The average high school starts at 8:07 a.m., as compared to the national average of 8:03 a.m., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We have the science that says this is a public health issue and a public health crisis, " said state Sen. Anthony Portantino a Democrat representing the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, who introduced the bill earlier this year.

"The morning sleep is the most therapeutic, healthy sleep for teenagers," he told KQED's Forum. "And what we do as a society, we wake them up in the middle of that healthy sleep and send them to school too early when they're sleep deprived."

The roughly 400 school districts nationwide that have already pushed back their start times have seen overwhelmingly positive results, he said, with boosts in academic performance, attendance and graduation rates, and a decrease in car accidents and suicide attempts.

The bill, though, faces strong opposition, particularly among many districts, school boards and even teachers who argue these decisions should be made at a local level, given the diverse needs of each community. The delayed schedule would likely lead to lengthy renegotiations with teacher unions and could require additional funding for the necessary changes in bus transportation.

Parents have also raised concerns that later start times will cause serious disruptions, making it harder to drop off kids in the morning before work. And later school dismissal times, they add, could disrupt afterschool sports activities, pushing practices even later into the evening.

"We oppose this bill because it imposes a one-size-fits-all approach that we don't actually think will result in kids getting more sleep," said Nancy Chaires Espinoza, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, which opposes the measure.

Many school districts have determined that a better way of increasing the amount of sleep students get is to minimize their homework load so they can go to bed earlier, Espinoza said in an interview on WBUR's Here and Now.

"That's why school times should be a local decision informed by parents and teachers, those who know the students and the community best," she added. "And unfortunately this bill would negate the entire public decision-making process. And we just don't think that's the best way to do right by kids."

But Portantino counters that this argument flies in the face of basic biology: Most teenagers, he argues, are simply hardwired to stay up late, until at least 11 p.m.

"All the arguments against it are adult-based arguments, not kid-based arguments," he added.