Pushing Back Your School’s Start Time?

(Don't Lose Any Sleep Over It.)

By Robert Harris

The nation-wide movement to push back the start time of the high school day by one hour so that adolescents can get more sleep is fascinating for so many reasons. Let’s start with the subject of sleep itself. There is no debating about it, humans require a sufficient amount of sleep each night to be alert during the day and to stay healthy. There are lots of negative side effects that are due to sleep deprivation - obesity, depression and aggression to name a few. Eight hours of sleep used to be the gold-standard. However, we’re now being told that seven hours will suffice for most adults. Some posit that the amount of time has been reduced by one hour to bring comfort to those with more active lifestyles and longer work hours. However, research shows that adolescents need more sleep than the rest of us – from nine to nine and one-half hours per night. For various biological reasons (hormone secretions due to circadian rhythms), adolescents are more active and alert at night – very alert at 8:00 p.m. and highly alert at 10:00 p.m.

So, if adolescents are most active and alert between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and midnight, that’s the time they should be doing their homework. Wrong! Today, homework is the new taboo in education because it causes students too much stress and, according to educational researchers, has a limited return on investment in time. To solve this problem educators have gotten very creative. Now, kids do homework in school and school work at home. They call this the ‘flipped-classroom.’ It is amazing that it has taken educators so long to figure out they have gotten it backwards for so many years. Needless to say, let’s be thankful that, for now, in the 21st century they have finally gotten it right. In addition to the movement to push back the start of the school day for adolescents, there is a yet another movement to eliminate homework. Imagine the adolescent, who is too alert and active to fall asleep between 8:00 p.m. and midnight now also being stressed-out because he has too much homework to do.

Let’s try to take several innovative approaches to solve these two problems. First, since adolescents are most alert and active at night, it appears obvious that they should attend school from 8:00 p.m. to midnight. Yes, you got it - night school. No, that won’t work. This idea is as foolish as thinking that kids might go to school during the summer. Indeed, it’s also way too dangerous for adolescents to be out at night with all of the evil that lurks under the cloak of darkness. As a more elegant solution to the problem, since adolescents are most active and alert between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 12 midnight, and they shouldn’t be out at night (teachers’ unions will fight tooth and nail to make sure that teachers are not working beyond 3:00 p.m.), and given access to low-cost internet enabled technology and online collaboration tools that are available today, perhaps high-schoolers can attend their classes online at night in a virtual environment created for them by their teachers who are pounding-out well-constructed, digitally-rich lesson plans by day. This will also give high-schoolers the opportunity to explore their own interests, do community service, hold a job, or even mow the front lawn by day. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “By jove Watson; I think we’ve got it!”

School work at home, schools leveraging the time of day when adolescents are most active and alert, teachers preparing during the day for their classes at night, elimination of costly school buses to transport high-schoolers to outdated schools, and facilities costs either significantly reduced or completely eliminated. The downside – no lunch ladies or food fights, and no more falling asleep in class. And, while sleeping in class may not be a way to solve these problems, a ten to twenty-minute planned nap within the school day just might. If preschoolers have a daily planned nap during the school day, why not a planned nap for those high-schoolers who need it most? Research demonstrates that taking a short nap between midday and 4:00 p.m. has an invigorating effect on the metabolism and boosts performance. Just think of it, semester breaks between marking-periods today, siesta breaks between classes tomorrow.

In many European cultures the siesta or midday break is commonplace – but not in our culture. Instituting a midday break in our high schools would be simple and can be delivered at no cost. Here’s how it would work. When the clock strikes 1:00 p.m., all students in academic classrooms place their heads on their desks and take a 15-minute snooze (night shades are optional). This may pose a slight inconvenience for those students who are in science labs and physical education classes at that hour. However, if a high school is on a rotating schedule it will likely work four out of five days per week. And as nice little throwback to the past, the nap time could also be preceded or followed by a healthy snack to promote student wellness. A nap, a gluten-free power-bar and off students go to their next class. There is also one other extrinsic benefit worth mentioning. A midday siesta promotes diversity. Students will now have the opportunity to experience daily life in a Mediterranean culture first-hand from the convenience of their own desktops. For those well-resourced school districts, VR glasses can be made available for students who would like to combine their siesta break with a virtual tour of the Mediterranean. Starting in Barcelona they head south to the Amalfi Coast in 15 minutes or less. No worries, students won’t experience any jet-lag.

The most interesting aspect of the movement to push back the start time of the school day is the fact that schools themselves are willing to totally disrupt the way they have been doing business for decades. This is incredible - society’s agents of the status quo causing their own disruption. School leaders strap on your seat belts and take two Dramamine for this excursion (or maybe just one Melatonin). Later start times for high schoolers means disrupting elementary and middle school start times, disrupting teacher and parent work schedules, disrupting bus schedules, disrupting the work of child-care providers, and most significantly will disrupt after-school extra-curricular activities including what we all know to be most important in a student’s high school education - inter-scholastic sports. Coaches beware! For all of its implications, it is comforting to know that the k-12 enterprise is willing to cause all of this disruption in the service of adolescents catching a little more shut-eye.

Given the limited capacity school leaders and policy-makers have for innovation, it will likely take years for them to figure this one out. Until then – don’t lose any sleep over it.

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