School Start Times Too Early to Allow Sufficient Sleep for Students: CDC Report

Federal health regulators warn that most children in the U.S. are starting school too early in the morning, which likely prevents students from getting the required sleep needed for academic success and their health. 

A report issued last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights how five out of every six high schools and middle schools in the United States have start times beginning before 8:30 AM, which may increase the risk of children becoming overweight, abusing drugs, and suffering from poor academic performance.

Due to the risk of sleep deprivation for students, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has urged middle and high schools to modify start times to begin no earlier than 8:30 AM, indicating that children need to sleep for 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night.

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Researchers from CDC and U.S. Department of Education reviewed data from the 2011-2012 Schools and Staffing Survey, which included about 40,000 public middle, high, and combined schools, to determine the average start time.

The results found that 42 states reported that 75-100% of their public schools have start times before 8:30 AM, with the results varying greatly by state. Collectively, the average start time across the schools included was 8:03 AM, with North Dakota and Alaska having the latest start times, averaging 8:30 or later, and Louisiana with the earliest average school start time, typically beginning around 7:40 AM.

According to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Report, two-thirds of high school students reportedly fail to achieve the CDC recommended hours of sleep, a trend that has remained steady since 2007. The CDC further states that the same ratio of high school students fail to achieve even eight hours of sleep per night.

Some health experts find this to be an alarming trend, as sleep deprivation in young teens and adolescents can play a major role in the development of cognitive function, behavioral patterns, and physical development.

The CDC’s research indicates that students who fail to receive necessary sleep are more likely to be overweight, not get enough physical activity, suffer from depression symptoms, engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, using illegal drugs, and performing poorly in school and extracurricular activities.

With children’s and young adults’ evening consisting of extracurricular activities such as sports, band, clubs, and other various activities, in addition to several hours of homework per evening, many students are staying up later to fulfill these responsibilities, leaving them sleep deprived with early school day start times, experts say.

“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” Dr. Ann Wheaton, the study’s lead author an epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Population Health said in the press release. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

The AAP’s efforts to have a later school start time adopted throughout the U.S. was outlined in a 2014 policy statement, which was the first genuine attempt to show evidence that school times have a direct impact on student success.

The organization recognized that although a number of factors including biological, academic and lifestyle choices may negatively impact high and middle school students’ ability to achieve and maintain a sufficient sleep pattern, evidence has strongly supported school start times earlier than 8:30 AM is a significant contributor to youth sleep deprivation.

Although the CDC is supportive of the new evidence provided by independent studies in an attempt improve our youth’s academics, school start times are not regulated at the federal or state levels. Public schools are regulated at the district or individual school level. It is with the best intentions that as future studies supporting the too-early school start time’s evidence are presented that it will result in later school start times.

The CDC and the U.S. Department of Education are encouraging parents to help their children practice good sleep habits by practicing consistent bedtime and rise times, including on the weekends. Healthy diets and exercise should also be taken into consideration for improved sleep patterns for everyone including children, adolescents, and adults.

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