Tomorrow morning I’m speaking at a high school that starts classes at 7:15 a.m. I’m not going to mention the school’s name, because the librarians organizing the visit are two of my all-time favorite people in the world, and the ridiculous start time isn’t their fault. In fact, they offered to let me start my presentations during second period instead of first, and I chose to accept the early start. There’s nothing wrong with an adult (me, purportedly) beginning his work day at 7:15 a.m. But there is something wrong–tragic, even–about requiring teens to start that early.
Teens are different from adults. Duh, you say, but it extends even to their physiology and sleep cycles. Adult and preteen brains begin releasing melatonin (triggering sleepiness) when it gets dark outside and quit when it gets light. Teenage brains delay the release and shut-off of melatonin for about 90 minutes versus adult brains. Which means that teenagers are naturally wired to go to bed late at night and rise late in the morning.
What happens when schools interfere with this natural cycle of late to bed and late to rise? Teens get insufficient sleep. And lack of sleep has been demonstrated to contribute to higher rates of clinical depression and suicide in teenagers. Did you catch that? Early school start times are literally killing our kids. And early start times aren’t just deadly due to increased suicide rates, they’re also part of the reason why “young adults are responsible for more than half of the 100,000 ‘fall asleep’ [auto] crashes annually.“
You really don’t need any more reasons why having an 8:30 a.m. or later start time for high schools is a good idea, do you? But just in case there are a few sick puppies out there for whom saving kids’ lives isn’t a good enough argument, here’s one more: high schools that have moved start times later have scored dramatic gains in standardized testing.
What should you do? Well, if you’re a school administrator whose high school starts at 8:30 a.m. or later, pat yourself on the back. Good job! If your high school starts before 8:30 a.m., what are you waiting for? Fix that shit.
If you’re a parent, move your student to a school that starts after 8:30 a.m. If someone told you that your kid’s car was defective and had a very small chance of killing him or her, you’d get it fixed, wouldn’t you? High schools that start before 8:30 a.m. are defective. If you can’t move your teen to a non-defective school, demand that he or she be excused from classes that start before 8:30 a.m. If enough parents complain, things may change.
If you’re a student, refuse to go to classes that start before 8:30 a.m. Offer to make up the work at a reasonable hour, otherwise some administrators are just going to assume you’re trying to put one over on them. If enough of you organize and do this together, your school’s schedule will change. You could also try pointing out that teens who are sleep deprived are more likely to become drug addicts. Parents and school administrators are generally terrified of drugs. Good luck!