By Dr. Beth Maslow
Williamson Strong Guest Blogger
Many of us know how we feel when we aren’t getting enough sleep – grumpy, grouchy, irritable, prone to respond impulsively and press “send” on our email or Twitter account. Sleep also affects our children and benefits many aspects of their physical and emotional health, as well as how they learn, driving safety, and sports performance. As a sleep physician, I care for many teens who struggle to wake up for school and are always tired, even with excellent sleep habits (turning off their phones, minimizing caffeine use). Lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain, depression, substance abuse, and difficulty focusing in school. Because of the importance of sleep for child health, multiple organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Sleep Foundation, have advocated for optimizing school start times for children and teens, and starting school at 8:30 am or later, with the goal of promoting healthy sleep for all students.
The way it works is this: Younger children (on average) are wide awake and ready to learn in the morning, with their biological rhythms at their best in early morning hours. As our children grow, and go through puberty, the schedule set by their biological rhythms shift by about 2 hours (again on average). So while an elementary school student is awake and ready to learn at 7:30 am, the middle and high school students are still in their “sleep zone” at that time. Going to bed earlier often doesn’t help the middle and high school student, because their rhythms have shifted in the evening also, making it really hard for these teens to go to bed before 10-11 pm at night, and sometimes even later than that! Our 24/7 lifestyles, large quantities of homework and extracurricular activities, and the use of smart phones, computers, and other devices certainly contribute to lack of sleep. However, the biological clock is a major piece of the puzzle, and why so many organizations have advocated for school start time optimization. Numerous studies have shown that when school start times are later, teens get more sleep (they aren’t staying up late to finish their homework and negating the benefits of early morning sleep), but are actually getting to bed at a similar time to before the start time change and reaping the benefits of early morning sleep.
We commend Williamson County Schools on their efforts to focus on child health and emotional well being, as well as on driving safety, which are all in keeping with their delaying school start times by 15-20 minutes for the 2017-2018 school year. The result has been a 7:40 am start time for teens, which gets us closer to the 8:30 am or later start time recommendation for students. While a small change, it is a first important step in the right direction, although more work needs to be done. The logistical concerns raised by the start time delay are important and include transportation, childcare, and athletics. These are all solvable, although it is critical that parents have a chance to voice their concerns and ask for viable solutions. These solutions may include optimization of bus routes, additional options for accessible and affordable before and after school care, and creative sports solutions including sharing fields that have lighting for late afternoon games. The possibility of having K-12 students share buses, with a bus monitor, so that all students can start school at 8:30 am, at least in rural areas, should be considered. Another option is to have middle and high school students start school later, and elementary students start school earlier, to be more in sync with everyone’s biological rhythms. Setting up a task force composed of staff, administrators, students, parents, teachers, coaches, medical professionals, and other community stakeholders to develop viable solutions is a strategy other school districts have used to successfully implement bell time changes. We would advocate such a task force be set up for Williamson County Schools. The Cherry Creek School District, in Denver, Colorado, took this approach.
About the Author
Dr. Beth Malow, Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics and Director, Vanderbilt Sleep Division, is a sleep specialist who cares for individuals with sleep concerns across the lifespan, and conducts research on the impact of sleep problems on daytime functioning. She is an active member of Sleep Well Tennessee, a Facebook group that advocates for healthy sleep in our communities. Dr. Malow recently presented on School Start Times at the Tennessee Sleep Society.
Sleep Well Tennessee is a Facebook group that advocates for healthy sleep in Williamson County.