Home Opinion Greg Blass Why later school-day start times are healthier for kids

Why later school-day start times are healthier for kids

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Imagine arguing that kids should be allowed to sleep later, even on school days. Imagine further if something so simple could help learning in school, test scores, behavior, even drug addiction and mental health issues in later years. Finally, imagine if this is the subject of hard, scientific proof.

Well, forget about imagination — all this is real, and the place to begin is the time our schools start classes each day. Moving the start of classes later, by as little as 45 minutes to an hour, can make a world of difference. To our boards of education in Riverhead, Southold, Shoreham-Wading River, Mattituck and throughout Long Island, please listen up.

As far back as the 1920s, Dr. Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychologist and pioneer in testing and nurturing intelligence, studied many factors that promote a child‘s success in school. He discovered that sufficient sleep was one such factor, and a critical one at that. In his book, “Genetic Studies of Genius,” he found that the longer children slept, the more intellectually gifted they were, no matter what the age. And, in careful studies and research projects lasting for years, he showed that quality sleep-time was deeply connected to a later school start-time.

Broken down to basics, a teenager‘s sleep, particularly REM, or dream sleep, cleans up their developing brains from daily “cluttering,” enabling them to absorb and retain information the next day. But teenage sleep rhythms aren‘t ready to start until later at night, and finish their sleep a bit later – a crucial bit later – in the morning, when most REM sleep, occurs. Cutting that sleep pattern for most teens a mere hour or so earlier has serious impact. But their unchangeable, biological sleep pattern, closely connected to their developing brains, is cut short daily by their harmfully early school hours.

A school start-time of 9 a.m. was common in the U.S. those hundred years ago. Terman, who was also president of the American Psychological Association, was joined by other experts, time and again, in finding that the reasonable start-time for schools in their day was in harmony with the innate sleep rhythms of young and still maturing brains. Study after study today confirms that teens‘ sleep patterns are vastly different from the rest of us, and the currently early start of school triggers abnormal brain development.

Consider a recent “longitudinal study” that tracked more than 5,000 Japanese schoolchildren. It showed that those who were consistently sleeping in the AM merely 40 to 50 minutes longer than other kids gained better grades in most if not all subjects, and developed superior IQ. A 2011 study published in Biology Letters 7 (by Martin Ordas) even showed the memory benefit of sufficient sleep in young monkeys. He and others demonstrated that a tired, under-slept brain is a leaky memory sieve, unable to absorb and retain an education.

Getting school kids to bed earlier so as to pack in the right number of hours misses the mark. This is because a youngster‘s “circadian rhythm,” the inner sleep clock in all of us, shifts forward by as much as three hours at that age. So getting up for a teenager at say, 5:15 a.m., clearly is harmful compared to that early-to-rise time for an adult.

In the face of all this, the U.S. Dept. of Education reports that more than 80 percent of American public high schools start before 8:15 a.m. Of those, 50 percent begin before 7:20 a.m.. Kids on the North Fork are up and waiting for the school bus five days per week at 6:00 a.m. and earlier for years on end. The effects are devastating.

Terman and a host of others warned a century ago that an educational system that swings to an early-morning model would harm the intellectual growth of our youth. But our U.S. education elites have swept these warnings under the rug.

Some school districts, however, have seen the light. The board of education in Edina, Minnesota, shifted the start-time for schools from 7:25 to 8:30 a.m. Teenagers reported getting 45 minutes extra sleep in the mornings. The cumulative effect was striking. Test scores on the SAT‘s for top students went from 605 to an average of 761. Students performing at other levels also notably improved.

Another benefit of later school start-times, unexpected by researchers, is a remarkable reduction in the number of traffic accidents among teenagers. The school board in Teton, Wyoming moved the start of school from 7:35 to 8:55 a.m., with the amazing result of a 70-percent reduction in traffic accidents among 16- to 18 year-old drivers. The Centers for Disease Control report that road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S.

Thus has the CDC joined the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in urging later times for starting school. The AAP also suggests that many cases of ADHD are actually undiagnosed sleep disorders and/or deprivation, made worse by such meds as Ritalin and Adderall, which are stimulants. Dr. Matthew Walker, in his excellent and readable book, “Why We Sleep,” discusses this in detail.

Most of us grew up in homes where sleeping later in the morning was regarded as simple laziness. We in turn as parents or guardians discourage later sleeping among teenagers for the same reasons. “Early to bed, early to rise” is as much embedded in our culture as Ben Franklin, who coined the phrase, is embedded in our history. But this cultural norm cannot apply to the sleep patterns of developing brains.

And the problem goes deeper. Just by their titles, these studies are a clarion call to school boards and the teachers unions who control them: “Sleep Deprivation: Implications for cognitive impairment,” by N.D. Volkow and D. Tomasi (2010); and “Sleep disturbance as a universal risk factor for relapse in addictions to psychoactive substances,” by K. Brower and B. Perron (2010).

Consider as well the spectacular research of Dr. Allison Harvey at UC, Berkeley. She showed how the converse is true, that regularizing and enhancing sleep, by improving not only sleep quantity and quality, but also regularity, will intervene in anxiety, depression and even suicide. Overall, in the course of her work in numerous cases over the years, she has succeeded time and again in stopping a patient‘s free-fall into crippling mental illness. Needless to say, she is an informed advocate for recognizing the unchangeable sleep rhythms of children in school. She notes most medical care-givers are untrained in sleep issues.

In much of this data, we find compelling evidence that insufficient sleep during childhood “significantly predicts early onset of drug and alcohol use in that same child during their later adolescent years.” This occurs even when controlling other high risk traits, such as parental history, attention deficits and other conditions. Consider that PTSD, bi-polar disorder, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, so much more often these days diagnosed in people in their mid-twenties, can now be scientifically traced in many cases to the disturbed sleep patterns of their teenage years. Dr. Matthew Walker reminds us that there is no major psychiatric condition in which sleep is or has been normal.

Finally, in the current Blue Cross Blue Shield Association‘s Health of America Report, consider this: major depression diagnoses surged 33 percent from 2013 to 2016, and more so, by 47 percent, among millennials. This report relates this to sleep disruptions as well as the increased use of electronics.

On recognizing the unchangeable sleep patterns among developing brains, school boards need to wake up. These earlier and earlier school start-times they have fostered may be convenient for us adults, as parents and teachers, coaches and counselors, bus drivers and office workers, in school and out, but it‘s not working for the young students. During the season of school budget votes, various ads and bumper stickers cry out with the message, “I vote for kids.” How about: “I vote for a school board that will start school at 8:45.” Or let‘s try this: “Later Start to School = A Far Better Rule.” Now there‘s a Board of Ed New Year‘s resolution for 2019!

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg