Sleep plays a pivotal role in adolescence serving as the cornerstone for physical and mental well-being. However, the harsh reality is that a significant number of American teenagers are grappling with a sleep deficit, largely due to the early start times of their schools. The disconnect between the biological needs of adolescents and the current school schedules has prompted a nationwide conversation about the necessity of pushing back school start times.
Adolescents, on average, require around nine hours of sleep each night for optimal health and development. Yet, the natural shift in the circadian clock during puberty makes it challenging for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Unfortunately, many U.S. schools kick off their day as early as 7 a.m., forcing students to rise even earlier to accommodate commute times. The consequences are glaring: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that a staggering 7 out of 10 teens fail to get adequate sleep on school nights.
Leading the Change to Start Times
In 2019, California took a groundbreaking step by becoming the first state to mandate later school start times for middle and high schools. The law stipulates that public high schools must commence no earlier than 8:30 a.m., while middle schools should start after 8 a.m.
Building on this momentum, Florida enacted its legislation in 2023, requiring public schools to adopt start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for high schools and 8 a.m. for middle schools, beginning in 2026.
The movement for later school start times is gaining traction across the nation, with policymakers in eight other states actively considering or passing legislation to address this issue. Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Texas are all exploring options to delay secondary school start times.
The Nevada State Board of Education is also engaging in discussions on the topic, while a bill in the U.S. Congress (HR8787) aims to direct the Secretary of Education to conduct a comprehensive study on the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance.
Benefits of Later Start Times
Over two decades of research consistently underline the positive impact of later school start times. When schools align their schedules with the natural sleep patterns of adolescents, the benefits are obvious. Students, parents, and teachers alike see improvements in mental health, reduced substance use, fewer car crashes involving teen drivers, enhanced academic performance (especially for disadvantaged students), and higher graduation rates.
Children from lower socioeconomic status families and racial/ethnic minority adolescents often experience inadequate and inconsistent sleep compared to their wealthier and white peers.
One study involving minority students in U.S. public schools revealed that, on days with increased discrimination, better sleep quality was associated with improved problem-solving, peer support seeking, reduced rumination, and enhanced well-being. These sleep disparities result from various factors, including socioeconomic and cultural influences, sleep environment characteristics, and historical discrimination.
Understanding these sleep disparities is crucial for developing interventions, policies, and educational programs to mitigate their impact on health, behavior, and educational outcomes.
The movement to start the school day later in the United States is not merely a shift in routine; it’s a crucial investment in the well-being and future success of the younger generation according to School Start Later. As more states engage and take steps towards implementing later start times, the nation moves closer to fostering an educational environment that prioritizes the health, safety, and academic success of its students.
A Sleep Calculator can help parents start the process of understanding how much sleep their child needs toward a later school start.
Although not everything will be fixed by starting a school day later, the Alaska Sleep Clinic is available for a free consultation if other sleep disorders are creeping into your adolescent’s daily life.