Today I read an article on NPR.org entitled “High Schoolers and Snooze Buttons: A Public Health Crisis?” Here’s the crux of the story: high school students are forced to go to school too early. The current schedule is out of sync with their natural rhythm of sleep, which results in tired, unfocused teenagers who may then suffer from “obesity, depression, smoking, drinking, and lower grades.”
Please allow a young Olson to capture my response:
I’m glad a scientific study has made these findings, I am. But good grief, people – this isn’t a surprise. It shouldn’t even warrant a “Really!?” Another, less-scientific version of this study would have been to ask every high school student, teacher, and bus driver, “Hey, do you think high schools start too early?” The resounding answer would be yes. Unless the kid is asleep, in which case you could safely take their response as an affirmative.
For 8 years, I arrived to teach with the moon shining down upon me. I would trudge to the library, fill up my cup with crappy (but free!) coffee, cross the courtyard, climb the stairs, and unlock my classroom door. On this daily journey, I would pass kids scattered about like half-asleep cats. Some were laying on ledges, others were propped up against backpacks on the ground, still others clumped together in hushed circles. There was little energy, save for a few kids joking around or bobbing their heads in rhythm to the music thumping in their earbuds.
Is this then the start of a productive academic day? One that doesn’t even begin in actual daylight?
But wait, you say, millions of kids have gone to school early and been plenty smart and fully functional. Yes, it’s true that most teenagers deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. But at what cost? And how many more have struggled and suffered because they’re just downright tired?
People typically make the following arguments to pushing back the start time: 1) It will cost money; 2) It will force undesirable changes to the start times for elementary and middle schools; 3) There won’t be enough time for sports, clubs, jobs, and homework.
Yes, it might cost money and affect start times at other levels. Yet there are always options. In Montgomery County, MD., the school board recently pushed back the school start time by 20 minutes for high school and middle school. Of the many options they debated leading up to the decision, the cost of changing the start times varied from millions of dollars to nothing at all. Ultimately, free-of-charge won out, but 20 minutes is at least a small mark of progress.
I absolutely believe in the importance of sports and clubs, and I understand that many kids work because they supplement their family’s income. By no means should we make these activities unfeasible for kids. Instead, we could re-envision the entire school day based on scientific findings that tell us more about healthy brain development, nutrition, sleep, and overall well-being.
Why not start school at 8 a.m. and then embed a time for sports practices, clubs, and other after school activities within the late morning or early afternoon? Afterward, students eat lunch and continue with the rest of their academic day until about 4 p.m. By starting the day later, students would be more rested. By incorporating physical or creative activities at the start of the day, their brains and bodies will be invigorated, allowing them to turn their attention to the mental tasks that await the rest of their time at school. After the final bell rings, students can go home, go to work, or still meet with their peers, teammates, or clubs if needed.
When I got pregnant with my daughter and began reading about the sleep cycles of babies, the books told me that once she started sleeping through the night, I should expect my baby to wake between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. I laughed with relief. I’d be getting at least a half hour of extra sleep every morning than I did as a teacher.
Let’s let all of our babies get more sleep – no matter how old they are.