The evidence continues to pile up: if you don’t hustle your teen out of bed and into the classroom early, they’ll get more sleep and do better academically.
The “Sleepmore in Seattle” study published this week in the Science Advances journal joins a pile of similar research in Canada and the United States in support of later school start times.
The crux of the issue? Most teenagers like to stay up late and sleep in late, a habit that tends to leave them chronically underslept and their brains less than fully functional when the school bell rings every morning.
So when the Seattle School District made plans to bump back its start time by an hour, researchers studied how high schoolers fared before and after. The result was more sleep, better attendance, and a 4.5 per cent increase in the students’ median grades.
But don’t expect your local high school to jump on board.
As Mary Carskadon of the Sleep for Science Research Lab at Brown University told Reuters more than a year ago when another study recommended high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, “Efforts to delay the school bell are more likely to succeed best when parents and the teens themselves use better choices.”
In other words, set and stick to your bedtime and limit all the pre-bedtime activities that might inadvertently make it harder for you to fall asleep. Then, maybe, the focus could shift to start times.
In Canada, at least, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for a later bell.
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Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute in Toronto used to boast one of the city’s latest high school start times at 10 a.m. The chance was made permanent after a pilot project found a delayed start yielded promising results.
“Students showed a four to nine per cent improvement in academic credit accumulation for Grades 9 and 10 following the later start to the school day,” said a 2011 report on the project released by the Toronto District School Board.
The report also showed improvements in performance in English and science among Grade 9 and 10 students, as well as better marks in English and math for Grade 11 and 12 students.
Eastern Collegiate was closed permanently two years ago, but those improvements were found to be greater than at any other school within the Toronto board.
Asked in 2014 why the success wasn’t prompting other school boards to follow suit, Brian Woodland of the Peel Region School Board said “it’s really about the economics of bussing.”
Last year, there was talk of another pilot in the Thames Valley District School Board, where high schools start around 8 a.m. Trustee Graham Hart spoke in favour of the initiative, specifically noting that one of the themes to emerge from a rash of suicides in the Woodstock area was a lack of sleep.
Although the school board allocated $25,000 for the pilot project which was to last until now, an official with the board told Global News this week it was ultimately cancelled before going ahead and she couldn’t remember why.
Still, at least one Canadian school board has jumped on board.
In northwestern Ontario, the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has had what it calls “harmonized” start times since 2014. The board, which includes many students travelling great distances from Indigenous communities to learn, felt the change was necessary.
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Students at six of the board’s high schools start at 9 a.m., around 50 minutes later than they used to.
Before, the board’s director of education Sean Monteith told The Canadian Press students were dropping out and failing.
“To continue to allow the same historical practice to go on at the expense of kids dropping out was just simply unacceptable.”
The evidence is certainly in favour of the swap.
While this week’s study out of Seattle was cautious about directly attributing more sleep from later start times with better grades, researchers wrote that “it is certainly reasonable that students who are better rested and more alert should display better academic performance.”
The study comes four years after U.S. pediatricians asked high schools to let kids sleep in.
“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement. The Canadian Paediatric Society said it agrees with the research.
— with files from The Canadian Press