Shift in school start time better for teen brains

More than a half-century ago, education experts figured out that when kids go to school hungry, they don’t perform well. Schools responded with robust lunch programs, which benefited children from low-income families the most.

Today’s educators are facing a different problem that schools have not yet embraced or addressed: sleepy teenagers. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others recently have suggested that schools consider later starting times.

A plethora of current research shows that teenagers’ brains work differently, especially as they go through puberty. Any parent could vouch for that finding. The difference is that teens have a natural tendency to start slow and become more alert later in the day.

The Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement has studied teens’ brains, learning patterns and sleep cycles. It has found that teenagers who arrive at school well-rested have lower rates of tardiness, obesity, depression and absenteeism. Teens who don’t get enough sleep have higher dropout rates and more frequent automobile accidents.

Some U.S. school districts are paying attention to the research and heeding Duncan’s call, pushing their start times for high schools, in particular, closer to 9 a.m. High schools in the Tumwater, Olympia and North Thurston school districts start at 7:30 a.m. or 7:45 a.m. Avanti High School is the lone exception with an 8:20 a.m. start.

The early start times have evolved because of increasing pressure on teenagers to engage in extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, community service projects and sports. Bus schedules designed to lower transportation costs and increase efficiency are also a factor.

But those early starts are taking a toll. Joseph Buckhalt, a professor at Auburn University’s College of Education, says: “All the data that we’ve seen on sleep shows that children, especially teenagers, are sleeping less. If you don’t sleep well, you don’t think very well.”

Parents can’t control school start times — though they can lobby local administrators to do so — but they can play an influential role in the amount of sleep their child gets each night. Restricting caffeine intake and limiting late-night social interaction through text messages, Facebook and cellphones can help children get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep that medical professionals recommend.

Recent reports show that young adults consume 30 percent to 50 percent of the energy drinks sold today. That plays a major factor in poor sleep patterns, and it also shows up in hospital emergency rooms. A different study reported that teens accounted for half of the caffeine overdoses at 57 poison control centers in 2007.

There’s nothing wrong with teens learning early to balance their lives among school, work and social activities. But school districts can help by shifting the school day to better coincide with a teenager’s biological learning clock.