Pediatricians push snooze on school start times

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by Megan Trent

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (August 25, 2014) - A new recommendation released by the American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday encourages middle and high schools to delay the start of classes in order to let adolescents get more sleep.

The new policy statement was posted online Monday. Dr. Nancy Swigonski, President of the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the importance of sleep can't be overstated.

“We all need sleep for our brains to consolidate everything that we’ve learned that day and to actually do some healing of our bodies. So we know that it is a huge public health issue," says Dr. Swigonski.

She says adolescents need between 8.5 hours and 9.5 hours of sleep on average, but only one in ten teens gets enough sleep each night. Parents are often unaware of how sleep deprived their children are. Dr. Swigonski says 75% of parents who have teenagers say their children are getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.

Dr. Swigonski says, "We know that adolescents that don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have anxiety, be depressed, perform worse in school, and in fact be involved in more car accidents.”

The AAP now recommends that schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m., citing data that shows 40% of U.S. high school have start times before 8:00 a.m.  Only 15% wait until 8:30 a.m. or later to begin the school day. Meanwhile, more than 20% of middle schools kick off the school day at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.

The reason adolescents are so tired that early in the morning, says Dr. Swigonski, is a change in melatonin production, which impacts a teen's circadian rhythm.

“In essence, they become less of a morning person and more of a nighttime person. Their rhythm, their natural biologic clock, changes by about two hours," she says. "Most adolescents are getting more sleepy around 11:00 p.m. at night. So if you want to get 8.5 hours of sleep,  you can’t start school before 8:30 in the morning.”

In May, administrators with Noblesville Schools held a public forum to discuss later school start times. High school teachers had become concerned about drowsy students during morning classes. In response to Monday's AAP recommendation, district officials released the following statement:

"Schools have historically organized their schedules around the needs of parents and not necessarily what’s best for students. Academic research overwhelmingly supports the association between later school starts times for adolescents and positive student outcomes. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent announcement echoes that same sentiment."

"Consistent with this research, Noblesville Schools announced earlier this year that we will be implementing later start times for our high school and middle school students in the 2015-2016 school year. We are currently analyzing all the details associated with the schedule change, and intend to announce final, confirmed start times to our community in early 2015. While this adjustment may be challenging for some of our parents in the short term, we are confident it is the right decision to support student needs."

For parents who have middle or high school aged children, there are a few steps that can be taken right away.

“Try to set a regular bedtime, including on the weekends, believe it or not. You can do some sleeping to catch up on the weekends, but in fact, you can still be chronically sleep deprived," says Dr. Swigonski.

Caffeine, says Dr. Swigonski, also isn't an adequate replacement for consistently getting a good night's sleep. She also recommends putting electronic gadgets away before bedtime. Parent Jessica Overholts admits that can be a struggle some nights.

“They want to be up all night playing on their tablets and watching television, and when you have them involved in things like extra-curricular activities and homework and all those things, then it’s hard," says Overholts. "You don’t want to be the bad guy and say, 'No, you need to go to bed,' but at the same time you know what they physically need.”

Some parents have voiced opposition to pushing back the start of school, saying it would cause the school day to last too late into the afternoon. Others say it would interfere with athletics, after-school jobs, extracurricular activities or a parent's work schedule.

Overholts says,“It makes sense to an extent. I remember signing up for 8:00 a.m. college classes and never making them, but on the flip side, the elementary schools start school at 8:00 a.m. Are you going to move everybody? It’s only fair to treat them all the same."

Other parents who spoke to Fox59 about the issue say they're in favor of a later school start time.

Robert Grays has a teenage daughter and says, “I think it would be a great idea, because my daughter gets up at 5:00 and by the time she gets home she is dead tired.”

Katrina Simmons is looking ahead to the days when her elementary school student enters middle school.

“I believe that starting at 8:30 is not that bad of an idea," she says. "It would actually allow kids to get more sleep.”

That is exactly what the AAP hopes will happen if more districts begin implementing a later school start time.