Rethinking School Start Times: Health and Success

Categories: Child Education


When we think about ways to improve education, we often focus on curriculum, teaching methods, or technology in classrooms. But what if the key to enhancing student success lies not in what happens during school, but in when school starts? The idea that schools should start later in the morning is gaining traction, and for good reason. There's a growing body of evidence suggesting that pushing back the school day can significantly benefit students' mental and physical health, as well as their academic performance.

It’s time to ask: are we doing students a disservice by starting school so early?

Historical Context and Current Scenario

Traditionally, most schools have started early in the morning, a practice that dates back to an era when a majority of Americans were engaged in agriculture and early rising was necessary for farm work. Today, however, the scenario is vastly different, with less than 2% of the population engaged in farming. Despite this shift, school start times have remained largely unchanged.

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Currently, many schools begin as early as 7:30 a.m., a schedule that can be brutal for teenagers who are biologically wired to sleep later.

In recent years, the push to shift school start times has gained momentum, driven by mounting research on adolescent sleep patterns and health. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both advocated for later start times, citing health benefits and improved academic performance. However, changing school schedules is complex, involving transportation, after-school activities, and impacts on family routines.

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Despite these challenges, some districts have made the shift, providing valuable data on the effects of later start times.

Impact on Physical and Mental Health

It’s no secret that teenagers are often sleep-deprived, and early school start times are a big part of the problem. Adolescents undergo a natural shift in their circadian rhythms, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. When schools start early, students often get significantly less than the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep. This sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for their physical and mental health.

Lack of sleep is linked to a variety of health issues in teenagers, including obesity, weakened immune systems, and higher rates of illness. But perhaps more alarming is the impact on mental health. Studies have shown a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and increased rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents. Teenagers who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience mood swings, aggression, and decreased coping skills.

The relationship between sleep and mental health is a complex interplay of biology and behavior. Sleep deprivation affects the brain’s ability to regulate emotions and can exacerbate the symptoms of mental health disorders. Moreover, tired students are less likely to engage in physical activity, a known factor in improving mental health. By starting school later, we give students a better chance to get the sleep they need, thereby supporting not just their physical well-being, but their mental health as well.

Academic Performance and Engagement

The impact of sleep on academic performance is often underestimated. Sleep is crucial for cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving – all essential for learning. When students are sleep-deprived, their brains struggle to absorb and retain information, leading to poorer academic performance.

Studies have consistently shown that later school start times result in better grades. For example, a study in Wake County, North Carolina, found that when schools started one hour later, students’ average grades increased significantly. Furthermore, attendance rates improve with later start times, reducing chronic absenteeism, a key factor in academic success.

There's also a noticeable impact on classroom engagement. Well-rested students are more alert, attentive, and ready to learn. They participate more actively in class discussions and are less likely to exhibit disruptive behavior. The benefits of a well-rested student body extend beyond individual grades to create a more positive and productive learning environment for everyone.

Societal and Economic Implications

The implications of later school start times extend beyond the school gates. One of the most compelling societal benefits is the reduction in teen car accidents. Studies have shown that when schools start later, there’s a significant decrease in car accidents involving teen drivers. The reason is simple: tired drivers are less alert and more prone to mistakes.

There are economic considerations as well. While adjusting school start times might initially seem costly due to changes in bus schedules and after-school programs, the long-term benefits can outweigh these costs. Better-rested students are healthier, reducing healthcare costs associated with sleep deprivation and mental health issues. Improved academic performance leads to higher graduation rates, which in turn leads to a more educated and productive workforce.

Additionally, there's a positive impact on family dynamics. Parents of teens often face the challenging task of waking up their sleep-deprived children in the morning, leading to morning conflicts and stress. Later start times can contribute to a more harmonious family life by aligning school schedules more closely with the biological sleep patterns of teenagers.

Counterarguments and Rebuttals

Despite the benefits, shifting school start times is not without its critics. One common argument is the logistical challenge it poses. Changing start times can affect bus schedules, after-school activities, and parents' work schedules. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Many districts that have shifted to later start times have found creative solutions, such as staggered bus schedules or adjustments in after-school programming.

Another concern is the impact on sports and extracurricular activities. While it's true that later dismissal times can make scheduling these activities more challenging, the benefits of well-rested student-athletes should not be underestimated. Better sleep leads to better performance, both in the classroom and on the playing field.

Finally, there’s the argument that teens should simply go to bed earlier. However, this overlooks the biological changes in adolescent sleep patterns. It’s not just a matter of discipline; teenagers’ bodies naturally fall asleep later and wake up later. We need to adapt our school schedules to fit their biological needs, rather than expecting them to adapt to an outdated schedule.

Real-World Examples and Case Studies

Real-world examples provide some of the strongest arguments for later school start times. In districts that have made the shift, the benefits are clear. For instance, in Edina, Minnesota, where high school start times were shifted from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., students reported feeling more rested, and teachers observed more alertness in the morning classes. In Seattle, after high schools moved their start times to 8:45 a.m., students got an average of 34 more minutes of sleep per night, leading to improved grades and attendance.

These case studies are more than just anecdotal evidence; they’re backed by research. In both instances, studies were conducted to assess the impact of the change, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Students not only slept longer but also showed improved performance and engagement in school.


In conclusion, the evidence in favor of starting school later is compelling. It’s not just about giving students a few extra minutes of sleep; it’s about aligning school schedules with the biological needs of our teenagers. By doing so, we can improve their health, enhance their academic performance, and create a more conducive learning environment. It’s time for educators, policymakers, and communities to seriously consider and implement later school start times. For the sake of our students’ well-being and success, the change is not just beneficial – it’s essential.

Updated: Jan 23, 2024
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Rethinking School Start Times: Health and Success. (2024, Jan 23). Retrieved from

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