Since 1996, Kyla Wahlstrom and her research team at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) have led the way in the study of later start times for high school students, beginning with their study of the impact of later start times on educational achievement in two different districts.
Two Minneapolis-area school districts, suburban Edina and urban Minneapolis Public Schools, were the first in the US to shift their secondary school start times to 8:30 AM or later based on emerging medical research showing that adolescents have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle.
Medical researchers found this cycle to be part of the maturation of the endocrine system. From the onset of puberty until late teen years, the brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 PM until approximately 8 AM, nine hours later. This secretion is based on human circadian rhythms and is rather fixed. In other words, typical youth are not able to fall asleep much before 11PM and their brains will remain in sleep mode until about 8 AM, regardless of what time they go to bed.
HOW SLEEP IMPACTS EDUCATION
These adolescent sleep patterns can have profound consequences for education. With classes in most high schools in the United States starting at around 7:15 AM, high school students tend to rise at about 5:45 or 6 AM in order to get ready and catch the bus. It’s no wonder that 20 percent of students sleep during their first two hours of school, when their brains and bodies are still in a biological sleep mode.
The loss of adequate sleep each night also results in a “sleep debt” for most teens. Teens who are sleep-deprived or functioning with a sleep debt are shown to be more likely to experience symptoms such as depression, difficulty relating to peers and parents, and are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SHOWS
Data collected from school districts across the US has provided Wahlstrom and her colleagues with information regarding the work, sleep, and school habits of over 15,000 secondary students, over 3,000 teachers, and interview data from over 750 parents about their preferences and beliefs about the starting time of school.
The study has laid the groundwork for similar changes in other school districts, supplying concrete results by putting the research into practice.
For example, initially Edina parents were concerned about the effect of later starts on such logistical issues as busing, athletics, and child care for younger students. But at the end of the first year of implementation, 92 percent of respondents on a survey for Edina high school parents indicated that they preferred the later start times.
Additional data from the study done in Minneapolis schools showed that there was a significant reduction in school dropout rates, less depression, and students reported earning higher grades.
This research has had a major impact nationally. Wahlstrom receives numerous inquiries on a regular basis from teachers, superintendents, parents, and school nurses from every state in the nation requesting more information about the findings of their research and how they can use that research to change policies in their districts.
WHY THE RESEARCH MATTERS
The School Start Time Study effectively reveals that high school students can benefit from later school start times. While the concept that teenagers have a distinctly different sleep pattern was first recognized by medical research findings, it is only through examination of actual cases where these findings were used as a basis to change school policies that educators can understand the ramifications of making such a change. The case studies done by Wahlstrom and her colleagues provide research-based information for school districts across the United States who are now seeking to make informed decisions for their own communities.
Teens who sleep fewer than six hours a night are:
- 4 times more likely to experience depression or suicidal thoughts.
- Drive with reaction times equivalent to blood alcohol content of .05
- Significantly more likely to use drugs, alcohol, and caffeine
- Significantly more likely to engage in risky behavior
Kyla L. Wahlstrom, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota, where she has been a researcher on school reforms since 1990. Prior to that, she had 19 years of public school experience as a teacher, principal and district administrator.