Later start is a good start

I’m not fond of waking up my 17-year-old daughter on school mornings. It can be downright dangerous. Even in a half-awake state, with her head buried under a twisted pile of blankets, Louisa can convey her anti-morning attitude with a powerful kick aimed in my direction.

I try not to take it personally. That’s why I found it reassuring to read in a recent Slate article that a 7:00 a.m. alarm for a teenager is like a 5:00 a.m. wake-up for a person in his or her 50s. If Louisa tried to awaken me that early with a cheerful greeting, I might feel like kicking, too.

My daughter and her two younger brothers have it better than many teens and tweens. I know that some kids wake up as early as 5:30 to shower, eat breakfast, and catch a ride to school. My kids sometimes don’t roll out of bed until 7:10 and still manage to make their 7:30 bus, which drops them off in time for a 7:51 start at the high school, or a 7:57 start at the middle school. And every Wednesday, all the schools in our district start an hour later, so teachers can have professional development time.

Biological breakdown

The Wednesday late start is a welcome respite in the middle of a typically hectic week. I just wish the daily school schedule better accommodated their biological need for sleep. It’s surprising, given the continuing research about teen brains and the dangers of sleep-deprivation, that all school districts haven’t followed the path of Edina. In 1996, that district changed its high school start time from 7:20 to 8:30 a.m., based on emerging research about adolescent sleep patterns. A year later, Minneapolis adjusted its secondary starting times from 7:15 to 8:40, and experienced a reduction in student dropout rates and depression.

“They would not go back; they would not change it,” says Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement. She has studied the impact of later start times on educational achievement and is a nationally recognized expert on the issue.

Wahlstrom initially was skeptical when she went to Edina to study the effects of the change. What she found shocked her. “I was blown away by the amount of positive outcomes and comments I heard from the principal and teachers. The teachers were saying, ‘my kids aren’t falling asleep in the first hour.’ The principal said there was less friction in the lunchroom, and less tension in the hallways.”

Although the change initially raised some concerns, those quickly faded. Athletic practice times had to be adjusted, but sports teams still excelled. Businesses that employed teens in after-school jobs were unaffected. The change was made at no financial cost; instead of adding buses, schedules were shuffled so that elementary schools started earlier. Elementary teachers found that an earlier start benefited their students.

Wahlstrom says elementary students are more flexible with their sleep schedules, like adults, but the teenage brain is different. From puberty through about age 19, adolescent brains go through a final stage of maturation, and experience a “sleep phase shift.” Their brains don’t begin to secrete melatonin—a chemical that makes the body feel sleepy—until 10:45 or 11:00 at night.

“There’s no way to change the timing of that—they can’t just go to bed at 10:00,” she says.

Once the melatonin secretion begins, teens are in full sleep mode until 8:00 a.m., when the secretion drops off. This means that their ideal wake-up time is about 8:15 a.m. Yet, the majority of secondary schools start before 8:00 a.m. This makes it a scheduling challenge for adolescents to get the recommended 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep a night.


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.