Survive vs. Thrive. Or, "I went to school at 7:30 and I turned out fine."

This isn’t really a question, but we hear it frequently. We are continually surprised by this comment because it is so much like saying, “my mom smoked and drank while pregnant and I turned out OK.” Or “I didn’t use a car seat or seatbelt and I survived.”

Sure, we survived. And most kids today will also survive the chronic sleep deprivation of their teen years.

But what many people who survived starting at 7:30 don’t understand is: Like the drunk guy who insists he isn’t too drunk to drive home, we do not know how sleep-deprived we are when we are sleep-deprived. “With chronic sleep restriction over months or years, an individual will actually acclimate to their impaired performance, lower alertness, and reduced energy levels. That low-level exhaustion becomes their accepted norm, or baseline. Individuals fail to recognize how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health.” (p. 137) Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, PhD.

Is this state of chronic exhaustion what we want for our children during the formative years of their lives? This in exchange for what? To save a few tax dollars, for a little more time after school to fill with homework and 3 hours of sports practice?

Should we ignore the substantial body of evidence that our kids would be much better off with later start times and more sleep, just because we didn’t know better 20 years ago? Don’t we pay to remove asbestos from our schools and lead from our drinking water, things we did not always know were harmful? Do we let our teens smoke just because we did so as teenagers?

Matthew Walker, PhD, in Why We Sleep, writes, “Without change we will simply perpetuate a vicious cycle wherein each generation of our children are stumbling through the education system in a half-comatose state, chronically sleep-deprived for years on end, stunted in their mental and physical growth as a consequence and failing to maximize their true success potential, only to inflict that same assault on their own children decades later…I hope we can change. I hope we can break the parent-to-child transmission of sleep neglect..When sleep is abundant, minds flourish. When it is deficient, they don’t.

What problem are we trying to solve?

  • Sleep is a basic need. It is a critical component of mental and physical health and the ability to learn.

  • Teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night and they need it at the right time - their body clocks shift later, so getting to bed earlier than about 11PM is not a viable option.

  • The majority of New Canaan teens are getting 7 or fewer hours of sleep.

  • About 40% of New Canaan teens are getting 6 or fewer hours. In his book “Why We Sleep” Matthew Walker, PhD writes, “Sleep six hours or less and you are short-changing the brain of a learning restoration benefit that is normally performed by sleep spindles. I will return to the broader educational ramifications of these findings in a later chapter, addressing the question of whether early school start times, which throttle precisely this spindle-rich phase of sleep, are optimal for the teaching of young minds.”

  • Our teens are chronically sleep-deprived and chronic sleep-deprivation is harmful.

    • Sleep-deprived teens are less able to deal with stress, less resilient and more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

    • They are more likely to use alcohol and drugs and behave impulsively.

    • Sleep also has a profound impact on learning - we need sleep to effectively process and store new information. It is counter-productive to send a sleep-deprived child to school. Without the REM sleep of the early morning (5am-7am) hours, our teens are not as creative or as able to build connections between things they have learned as they could be.

    • Drowsy teen drivers are also a safety concern - there are more accidents caused by drowsy driving than alcohol and drugs combined.

  • Our teens cannot get adequate sleep with the current school schedule.

  • To do nothing is to continue to do harm to our teens. It also foolishly neglects to reap the many benefits of adequate sleep.

  • None of this is our opinion. Every major medical organization has recommended middle and high school start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.. Read the American Academy of Pediatrics paper on adolescent sleep and school start times for more information.

Does a start time change for grades 7-12 mean other grades have to start at 7:30?

Not necessarily. The calculation is fairly simple. If parents in New Canaan do not want any child going to school as early as 7:30, then we will likely need to pay for more buses. There are multiple options and multiple costs for making the change. What is clear is that change is necessary - we cannot continue to inflict systematic sleep deprivation on our teens. We have to give them more time for sleep. As a town, we have to come together to decide which option for doing that is the best one.

Why is busing such a factor in later start times?

Because busing drives the cost of the change. It is also a major constraint in determining what start times are possible for each school.

New Canaan has a 3-tier bus system. This was adopted sometime in the 90s as a way to save money on busing. Instead of two start times in the system, both after 8AM, they added a 3rd time - 7:30 a.m. It is unlikely we would make that decision again, now that there is so much research about the impact the 7:30 start time and the resulting sleep deprivation has had on teens.

What does the research say about elementary schools starting at 7:30?

There isn’t as much research on the impact of earlier start times for elementary age kids as there is on adolescent sleep. Several districts have made the change in a cost-neutral way by swapping start times. However, many districts decide to fund more buses so that no school has to start as early as 7:30.

Won't teens just go to bed later?

No! Many districts around the country have changed start times and the fact is that teens get more sleep when start times are later. Wilton, for example, changed start times in 2006. Bedtimes remained constant and wake times shifted later. A 40 minute change in start time resulted in 35 minutes of additional sleep on school nights.

Recently, research in Seattle Public Schools after they changed start times showed that the teens are using the time for sleep.

In the survey New Canaan conducted last spring, 87% of parents and students said they would use the time for sleep.

Sleep is a basic need. It is a critical component of mental and physical health and the ability to learn. Teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night. Most of them are getting 7 or fewer hours of sleep. Over 1/3 of them are getting 6 or fewer. This is a public health crisis that we must address.

"Just as people who are hungry will eat more when given the opportunity, people who are sleep deprived will get more sleep if you give them a chance." Rafael Pelayo, MD, Stanford University School of Medicine

Don't teenagers need to learn to get up early to prepare for the "real world"?  Or, why can't they just go to bed earlier?

Sleep is a need, not a luxury; the only thing a lack of sleep prepares you for is to function below your potential. Asking a teenager to suffer sleep deprivation now in order to prepare for the real world is like asking a toddler to give up his nap in order to prepare for Kindergarten. 

Going to bed earlier is not a solution. Adolescents need about 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night, which is more than adults need. In addition, their sleep cycle shifts about two hours later, so that they have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m. These changes occur in all human adolescents (and many other mammals) and are temporary. When they are adults in the real world, their sleep patterns will be adult sleep patterns. It is not coddling to allow a teenager to get enough sleep any more than it is coddling to allow them to get enough to eat.

Even universities have started to push class start times back. It is hard to do a randomized control study of the impact of start times - most high schools can't have half the kids start at 7:30 and the other at 8:30. But the US Air Force Academy did it and researchers found that the first year students who started after 8 performed better not just in the morning but all day:

"Results show that starting the school day 50 minutes later has a significant positive effect on student achievement, which is roughly equivalent to raising teacher quality by one standard deviation." 

I'm worried that our sports programs will be disrupted. 

The CIAC, New Canaan's athletic conference, has a position on the issue:  “research shows that switching to later school start times does create a more optimal learning environment and improves student achievement for high school athletes... [with later start times] interscholastic athletic activities can continue to be offered, with appropriate accommodations, within any reasonable school day structure... To do less would be to elevate high school athletics to an importance greater than that which is its true purpose.”  

Some worry that athletes will have to occasionally miss class to make it to away games on time. However, within our athletic conference, several districts have changed their start times or are working on it. Greenwich and Wilton start later. Westport and Norwalk are working on it. The momentum is going in only one direction and as other towns adjust their start times, game scheduling will be a non-issue. Although we think later start can be implemented without causing athletes to miss anymore class time than they do now, we would also argue that the enormous benefit of getting an extra hour of sleep every day of the week far outweighs the downside of an occasional missed hour of class time during a given athletic season. 

Furthermore, athletes and coaches around the world are now aware that adequate sleep is one of the most effective ways to enhance performance and reduce injuries. Christine Meier Schatz of Sleep for Success Westport created the visual below to show that sleep is a powerful sports performance enhancer. 



Can't my child just make up for lost sleep on the weekends?

The first evidence of sleep deprivation is sleeping in on the weekends.
— Rafael Pelayo MD, Stanford University School of Medicine

Changing sleep patterns on weekends leads to a phenomenon that sleep scientists call social jetlag.

Let’s take the example of a teenager who needs to get up for school at 6 AM with difficulty but arises, feeling refreshed, a month into her school vacation at 9 AM. This implies three hours of social jet lag on every school day, equivalent to the jet lag of flying from San Francisco to New York five days a week. However, unlike traveling, there is no real habituation. Being jet-lagged every day sounds pretty awful, and it is the state the majority of our teens spend every day in.
— Craig Canapari MD, Director of Yale Pediatric Sleep Center

Won't teachers just move office hours and club hours to the morning?

This is certainly a concern and we have learned from other school districts, such as Palo Alto, CA, that it is important to protect morning time as part of a Later Start implementation. However, even if some teachers or clubs did meet in the mornings, this is optional, does not happen every day, and does not systematically harm every single student the way a 7:30 am start does.