Starting School Later: Nature Intended It

Category: Lena's Column Created on 06 June 2017
Written by Lena

6:45 a.m. The alarm goes off; the start of another day of another week of another school year. Most students have it the same: staying up really late at night doing school work, then waking up really early to get to school. Teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function most efficiently, yet only 15% of teenage students report sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights. Now I’m no doctor, but even I know that that’s not healthy.  

Since excess school work and the resulting stress have proven to be unavoidable nowadays, the only way to guarantee the healthy development of students is by ensuring they get sufficient sleep to be able to face all the day’s obstacles. Although some people oppose the idea, starting schools later in the morning is the most logical way to go so students can thrive both physically and academically. So let’s get factual -- science is on our side.

School days generally start at fixed times in the early morning, without regard to the optimal functioning times of students with different chronotypes. An Oxford University sleep study conducted in 2014 claims that later starting times are crucial to high school students' sleep, health, and performance. What's more, experimentation showed that they improved grades in core subjects by as much as 19 %.

Neuroscientists also argue that the brain only becomes fully functional later in the morning, recommending a 9:30 a.m. start. How efficient can students really be early in the morning when they are groggy, tired and still trying to make up for the previous day’s lack of adequate rest?  

Students’ health can also be affected by starting that early in the morning. The core of the problem is that biological changes which begin during puberty shift wake and sleep times 2 to 3 hours later in the day. Oblivious to these changes, schools continue to start classes early in the morning. The misalignment between the sleep schedule shift and schools’ usual start time causes a significant sleep loss of more than 2 hours each day. This resulting sleep loss impairs academic performance and also increases the risks of obesity, depression, and drug abuse. In a nutshell, it has a damaging effect on our physical and emotional well-being, both of which play an important role in our academic performance.

So if the science proves that later start time would be better, and it is obvious that nature intended it, what is it that still stands in the way of schools making later starting hours a reality? Some parents and school administrators believe that early mornings come with more benefits than late afternoons. They believe that the additional time should be spent either studying or carrying out different extracurricular activities, claiming that physical exercise counterbalances the risks of the diseases caused by lack of sleep and improves learning. While this may be true, it does not apply to teens who spend their afternoons trying to make up for lost time and keeping up with their schedules. And if and when they get a free hour, they would generally rather spend it napping than further exhausting their bodies by exercising.

Plus, bed times are delayed anyway due to the shift in sleep time that comes with puberty and the impact of social media and other sociocultural influences. So, keeping up with extracurricular activities in the afternoons, staying up that extra hour at night studying, then making it up in the morning would be more beneficial for teenagers, especially that optimal sleeping times for teenagers are between 11p.m. and 8 a.m., meaning that waking up at 6 a.m. to get to school interrupts that precious period, leading to all kinds of diseases, not to mention inattentiveness and the inability to learn. So technically giving teenagers a few extra hours to sleep in the morning is of more help, psychologically and academically, than physical exercise can ever be.

A generation of healthy, well developed students working to reach their full potential is the first step towards achieving a better tomorrow, and something as simple as pushing a schedule a few hours ahead should not compromise this. Sleep shouldn’t be a luxury; it is a necessity.  

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