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Lois M. Collins: School start times are designed for everything but the kids we're trying to educate

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 26 2014 9:22 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 26 2014 9:22 p.m. MDT

The American Academy of Pediatrics says we're starting school too early for teenagers to thrive. It's a simple fix, it says, but one that policymakers seem reluctant to take for a lot of reasons, although early start times puts kids at risk.

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The teenager’s behavior had become vexing. It seemed she was always on the verge of a small explosion, frequently argumentative and sometimes overly emotional. Her mom described her as frequently frustrated and said her grades were slipping, which they’d never done before.

“I’m going to take her to a counselor,” her mom confided. “I honestly think she might be experiencing a mental illness.”

Thorough tests indicated my friend’s daughter was, in fact, sleep deprived. Between a homework overload, late-night text messages that periodically interrupted her sleep and an early morning school start, she was struggling. Getting her sleep back in balance would prove to be somewhat challenging.

Just in time for the start of a new school year, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released new recommendations regarding school start times, which any parent of a teenager can tell you are designed to meet every need but a teen’s need for sleep. Early start time helps teachers get a jump on their day. It serves the needs of employers who hire older kids to work after school. And it’s great for enabling families to shoe-horn a few more extracurriculars into the daily schedule.

What it doesn’t help is a teenager’s ability to get adequate sleep in order to learn and function well — a study-proven fact.

In making its recommendation that middle school and high school classes not start until 8:30 a.m. or later, the academy notes that teens who don’t sleep enough “often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and decline in academic performance.”

That seems to me like a shopping list of all the things from which you’d try to protect your children.

It’s not as simple, the pediatricians note, as simply sending a teenager to bed earlier. Their natural adolescent sleep-wake cycles “make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.” To get the sleep they need starting at that hour, most would still be snoozing when the first class of the day starts. Forget getting up and getting dressed and finding their way to school. My kids get to school about 7:15 a.m.; they get up around 6 a.m. to pull it off. If they fall asleep right at 11, they still fall at least 90 minutes short of recommended sleep time every day.

Nationally, about 40 percent of high schools start classes before 8 a.m. and only 15 percent start at the recommended 8:30 a.m. or later, the academy said. It's similar for middle school.

In a release urging later start times, the policy statement’s lead author, Dr. Judith Owens, says that “chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today.”

Teens who get enough sleep, she says, are less likely to be overweight, depressed or have car crashes. They are more apt to get higher grades, earn better standardized test scores and enjoy “an overall better quality of life.”

The beginning of school was probably not the best time to advocate for a changed school schedule. I tend to doubt policymakers will look at the AAP recommendation and remake the school year that’s getting underway.

There’s a lot that goes into getting the school day going successfully, regardless of start time, beginning with basic scheduling of everything from school buses and breakfast program hours to which classes are offered when. It also has potential to increase traffic congestion because many jobs start at or around the recommended hours for school start times, putting more people on the road simultaneously. It would certainly complicate some family schedules.

But not one of those negatives comes close to the benefit of figuring out how to help children at one of the most crucial points in their developmental and educational lives so they thrive instead of drag.

The teenage years are when children really begin taking the steps that will help them be successful, healthy, competent adults. Or not. We ought to consider helping them make the grade.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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