On Sept. 7, 2018, California lawmakers enrolled a bill that would mandate most school start times in the state be pushed back to 8:30 a.m.
Currently, the bill is awaiting a signature from California Governor Jerry Brown. If it is approved, it will allow schools a maximum window of three years to adjust their schedules.
The movement follows an influx of newly-recognized research which points to insufficient sleep as a common factor behind issues such as poor test scores and mental health disorders in students. According to California Senator Anthony J. Portantino, who drafted the bill and was interviewed by The New York Times, “[Earlier start times are] the biological equivalent of waking you or me up at 3:30. Imagine how you would feel if, 187 days a year, you had to get up at 3:30 a.m. You’d be miserable, you’d be depressed — you’d act like a teenager.”
In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics classified school start times before 8:30 as “a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in [teens],” and additionally identified insufficient sleep as a public health issue. Yet, Portantino’s assertion that teens are biologically predisposed to be repelled by early school start times is backed by research that was conducted over 20 years ago.
“Before the 1990s, we didn’t realize that during the years of puberty, teens experience a later shift in their sleep cycle,” said Stacy Simera, a practicing mental health counselor and volunteer for the non-profit organization Start School Later.
“We have a hormone called melatonin that we secrete in the evening and that hormone tells us that it’s nighttime. We used to think that everybody secreted melatonin at the same time. In the 90s they found a way that they could measure melatonin by swabbing the inside of your mouth and getting saliva samples. And when they took saliva samples from little kids, teenagers and adults they found out that during the years of puberty, adolescents secrete melatonin almost an hour and a half later than little kids and adults. And then once puberty is over, so around the mid-20s, melatonin secretion goes back to earlier. By the 90s, we’d already created school schedules where buses are coming around five or six in the morning.”
Simera, who has her bachelor’s degree in psychology and her master’s in social work, offers private counseling to teenagers, college students and adults for a range of mental health issues varying from depression to PTSD. She began advocating for later school start times after observing the effects of insufficient sleep on her patients and her two young sons.
As a volunteer staff member for Start School Later, Simera researches the effects of sleep on teen mental health and uses her knowledge to encourage schools in Ohio––and across the nation––to adjust school start times to sync with teen sleep needs.
Start School Later has chapter leaders around the US that are pediatricians, psychologists, other social workers, counselors, physicians, sleep medicine specialists and other parents. The national non-profit started because it has been hard for local schools to do it all on their own.
“Even though this research has been known since the 90s, it often takes collaboration at a larger level to get the information out and to learn from other schools how they were able to start later,” Simera said. “And so a lot of people realized that we need to team together. Because otherwise, one parent might fight it for like five years until their kids graduate and then they’re like, ‘I’m tired, I’m not gonna fight it anymore if my kids won’t see the benefits,’ so they give up. In fact, I realized several years ago that my two sons will never see the benefit of any changes that occur in my school, but I’m still fighting for the benefit of other people’s kids.”
To most people, it is obvious that lack of sleep has the ability to stunt mental functions and decrease productivity. Yet, according to Simera, those who are not experts in the subject tend to grossly underestimate the potential consequences that come with systematically depriving teens of the appropriate amount of sleep. Especially in terms of mental health, insufficient sleep is a simple factor that can have detrimental repercussions.
Over 60 studies have found links between chronic insufficient sleep and increased risk of suicide.”
— Stacy Simera, Start School Later
“Early school times don’t just shorten sleep, they disrupt your sleep, because for teenagers, you get your healthiest sleep between 8 a.m and 11 a.m. We used to think that the only side-effect of not getting enough sleep was simply being tired. We used to think, ‘oh, that’s the only thing that goes wrong. You’re just tired,’ so you drink some coffee. Well now we know that when you don’t get enough sleep over and over again, the impacts are much more than fatigue,” Simera said. “Over 60 studies have found links between chronic insufficient sleep and increased risk of suicide. I’m not saying less sleep is the only factor is suicide, we know that a lot of things feed into that, but from my point of view as a mental health counselor, if I’m sitting down with a high school student that has depression and severe suicidal idealization, I know there’s a lot of things that feed into that. But some of those things I can’t control. I can’t change someone’s past. I probably can’t change their support system all that much. There are variables that I can’t change. But sleep, that’s a low-hanging fruit. That’s a variable that we can influence.”
In addition to suicide, insufficient sleep has been concretely linked to early substance abuse, increased risk of car crashes and severe sports-related injuries. Based on a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, athletes who slept the appropriate eight to 10 hours per night were 68 percent less likely to be injured than their peers who slept less.
Sufficient sleep not only has the ability to prevent harm to students; it can also significantly improve their overall academic performance, a finding which has encouraged many schools across the nation to stagger school schedules in order to accommodate the needs of students of all age brackets. Recently, in response to this research, Duke University banned any classes that would take place before 8:30 a.m.
CHS psychology teacher David Aiello explained that, in an ideal world, changes to the high school schedule would be much more drastic.
“If the school system was set up for students, we should be starting school around noon. And ideally we’d go from noon until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. with classes, then we’d do all the after school activities until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., then you guys would be able to do school work from midnight to 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., then you go to sleep around 3:00 a.m.. And then you’d be sleeping until 11:00 a.m.. That seems to be the biological rhythm scale that most late-adolescents are in. Once teens hit puberty, their natural biological schedule changes. Trying to go to bed at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. is really difficult because your biological rhythms tell you that you’re still active and ready to do things. And so the schedule is made out for adults in society, it fits with when adults want to be waking up and their working schedules. If parents have to be up and going to work at 8:00 a.m., then the kids have to be at school at 8:00 a.m., because you can’t leave your 7-year-old at home to get themselves going in the morning. So the school system is set up for the adults, and I don’t see a realistic possibility of that changing, unless the way we do school completely changes,” Aiello said.
Yet, Simera said, high school students could benefit greatly from the start of the school day simply being moved back to 9:00 a.m. or a bit later.
At CHS, it is unrealistic for students to be expected to go to sleep earlier in order to catch up on rest, a fact which can be attributed to Clayton’s focus on academic rigor.
“The amount of stress and the amount of homework and the amount of classes and the amount of extracurriculars and all of those other things that pile on top make it so you can’t just shut it all down and go to bed at 11:00 p.m. and wake up at 7:00 a.m. well-rested,” said Aiello.
There is no question that increased amounts of sleep are overtly beneficial to the health of the teenage mind. It is also well-known that regular exercise is equally necessary to mental health. And the two are not mutually exclusive.
“[Exercise] makes you a better sleeper. It’s kind of a misconception that exercise will keep you awake, it’ll keep you alert, that you won’t be able to fall asleep, when athletes or people who are physically active during the day sleep better than people who aren’t,” CHS Health and PE instructor Sarah Hartman said.
It is no surprise that exercise has many biological and mental benefits to the human body, a fact that causes many teachers in various fields to question why more steps aren’t being taken to increase the amount of movement an average student has in a day.
Although CHS and most other high schools across the nation either offer or require at least one form of a 45 minute physical education class, Hartman argues that more steps could be taken to maximize the benefits of physical activity within a school day to satisfy the recommended amount of exercise performed in a day.
“[The recommended amount of exercise] is 60 minutes a day for children and teenagers in high school. And so they say 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, which is sometimes abbreviated as MVPA. That means that your heart is racing, you’re getting into your target heart rate zone, you’re sweating, your breathing rapidly, and so you’re actually getting a really good cardio workout. . . So I would arrange it so that there were active movement breaks during the day. I think there’s a lot of importance to getting that 60 minutes of physical activity, whether that’s done through PE, and then some outside of school, but I think there also needs to be built in breaks during the day, where it’s a teacher creating an activity for their students,” Hartman said.
This short-break system has been implemented in several schools around the U.S. already, with each classroom operating under a specific ratio of work to break time, in which students work for the majority of class time, with short five to 10 minute breaks of movement every 30 to 40 minutes.
The belief is that while consecutive minutes of learning have decreased, the amount of information that students receive in the shorter amount of time will be better retained after a short break, thus maximizing the allotted time in which students are actively learning.
Many schools have shied away from this system because they believe these breaks will merely serve as a time in which the brain will be dormant as students whip out their phones or catch up with friends.
Conversely, research has shown that, especially in the presence of movement, the brain is in reality very active during times when it is not actively focusing on learning because the brain is processing and storing information received during the concentrated period of learning.
“Some people don’t like to call them brain breaks, because they said that your brain actually isn’t taking your break. Your brain is actually firing like crazy. But I would love to see like school wide activity breaks that are in in the school day where no matter what classroom I was visiting, every single student in school is doing something active for five to 10 minutes at that designated time,” Hartman said.
Hartman believes that if this short-break system of movement is implemented, students will experience staggering academic and emotional benefits both during and outside of school.
If you’re physically active right before taking a tests, you’ll typically have a little more focus, and you’ll perform a little better as well.”
— Sarah Hartman, P.E.
“There’s a lot of research that shows if you’re physically active right before taking a test, you’ll typically have a little more focus, and you’ll perform a little bit better as well,” Hartman said. “And there are long term benefits that will help you out as well. So like with your mental wellness, if you’re physically active, it reduces stress, it makes you feel happier, because you have all of these chemicals that are released in your brain as soon as you’re active. So even if you don’t want to be happy, you’re going to be, and that’s kind of a good thing.”
Hartman echoes the sentiment of many high school students participating in sports that often dread going to practice, but emerge in a much better mood afterwards because of endorphins released during this time of activity.
CHS Junior Sara Litteken participates in varsity basketball and varsity soccer in the winter and spring seasons, and has observed positive changes in her mood as an effect.
“Exercising is a great stress reliever for me because I tune everything out and just do my own thing or work with a team. Also, when I have a really good workout and really push myself I feel like I accomplished something that day and it feels more productive than days I don’t workout,” Littiken said.
Although, unsurprisingly, sports take up large chunk of her available time after school to complete homework, Littiken claims that within this shortened amount of time, she is able to accomplish more due to sharpened focus and drive.
“Sports do make it somewhat difficult to complete my homework just because they take up time and sometimes I get antsy when I sit down to do homework after a game or practice. But at the same time, I think exercising helps me focus after I sit down for a little bit because my mind has had a good break from studying,” Littiken said.
CHS Junior Brooke Becker participates in diving, volleyball and soccer during all three seasons, and shares the sentiment of reduced stress as a result of her packed schedule.
“I think that when I am active I am usually in a better mood and I am able to focus better than I would without,” Becker said.
So how could we organize a school day that would positively benefit students’ mental health?
Hartman and Simera have some ideas.
One way to reduce students’ stress would be to implement a system of short breaks during an allotted period of active learning, at which time the brain could process information just received and become better prepared to absorb new information. Such methods have been proven to increase overall retention of material and reduce anxiety associated with prolonged mental strain.
In terms of increased sleep, Simera said, shifting the school schedule is a simple matter of community organization and drive to make a change. From there, creativity and unity of the school board have historically had the ability to facilitate the switch.
“I hear it all the time that it would be too hard to change the school schedule. We’ve lost count of how many schools have actually moved to later starting schedules. It’s in the hundreds, if not now thousands. If other other schools can figure it out, then any school in America can. One of the best things to do is to first form a committee. Have the committee include somebody from athletics, a teacher, some health professionals from the community. You’d want to find pediatricians or psychologists or social workers that know science. And you’d want to have parents, so maybe some people from the PTA,” Simera said. “Schools are more likely to change if they label this as a health issue.”
There are many strategies that American schools have devised in an effort to make room for later high school starting times.
Some districts choose to stagger the schedules of their elementary, middle and high schools, so that the teenagers who require the most sleep begin the latest (preferably around 9:00 a.m. or 10:00 a.m.) while the elementary school students might start an hour or more before. Others organize teacher planning periods so that adults can arrive at school at an appropriate time for their biological predisposition, while students arrive at a later time.
“Clayton kids are amazing. They are sophisticated, compassionate, smart kids. I’ve taught at Clayton for 19 years and I’ve always been so grateful to be able to work with such amazing students and amazing families. But can we do better? Is there an ideal we can shoot for that looks a little different? I think yes,” CHS theater teacher Kelley Weber, who is leading the District’s initiative toward mindfulness practices in the classroom, said. “My wish would be for all our students to be confident no matter their grades, to be resilient no matter their circumstances, and to be kind no matter what.”