Your Health

Early school start times can result in unintended consequences for youth


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Start times at local middle and high schools vary, with some beginning up to an hour later than others a few times a week. Research shows classes beginning before 8:30 a.m. do not give adolescents enough time to get the recommended amount of sleep.

Later middle and high school start times have been recently debated in California. Senate Bill 328 passed the State Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown stated it should be up to local communities to make these decisions.

Earlier start times have resulted in significant negative impacts on children’s health, academic performance and overall well-being. A study shows that since 1991 – before the invention of smartphones – there has been a national decline in adolescent sleep.

Schools in the community have each taken a different approach:

• Blach Intermediate starts at 8:30 a.m. four days a week and at 9:17 a.m. Wednesdays.

• Egan Junior High starts at 8:07 a.m. four days a week and at 8:55 a.m. Wednesdays.

• Graham Middle starts at 7:50 a.m. four days a week and at 9:25 a.m. Wednesdays.

• Bullis Charter School’s middle school starts at 8 a.m.

• Los Altos and Mountain View highs start at 7:15 a.m. or 8:10 a.m., and 7:15 a.m. or 8:50 a.m. depending on the day and zero versus first period.

• Alta Vista High starts at 9 a.m.

• Gunn High starts at 8:25 a.m.

• Homestead and Fremont highs start at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. depending on the day.

• Monta Vista High starts at 7:30 or 8:29 and 8:40 or 9:30 depending on the day and zero versus first period.

Sleep deficit

Just prior to the start of puberty, the sleep-wake cycle shifts later by two hours. Teenagers’ brains produce melatonin later in the evening. Teens need an average of nine hours of sleep every night. If a child falls asleep at 11 p.m. and sleeps for nine hours, he or she wakes up at 8 a.m. If school starts at 8 a.m. or earlier, that child will get fewer than the recommended nine hours of sleep, night after night. It is not possible to make up this chronic lack of sleep on the weekends.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatrician and lead author of the policy statement “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics. “Delaying early start times can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

Research documents that later school start times result in a reduction of sports injuries and increases in attendance and academic performance.

Lack of sleep contributes to irritability; difficulty with focus, attention and mood; and an increase in risk-taking behaviors. Moreover, chronic sleep deprivation increases suicidality in teens, independent of mood.

We see kids who appear from the outside to “have it all” but have serious symptoms that might indicate anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But correctly diagnosing a child who regularly gets four to six hours of sleep a night is impossible, as the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation both mimic those of these disorders and contribute to the development of these disorders.

We recognize the myriad of issues that administrators might face. However, we as health professionals are asking all of our local schools to change their start times to 8:30 a.m. or later, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and sleep scientists. The impact will be felt in our children’s physical health, emotional health, social relationships and academic performance.

When our children thrive, the ripple effects go beyond the immediate family. Our entire community thrives.

Maria Porch, LCSW, is a Los Altos-based psychodynamic psychotherapist and mental health educator for professionals, parents and students. For more information, visit mariaporch.com.

 Kelley Abrams, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, early childhood researcher and parent educator. She directs clinical products at Cognoa, a digital behavioral health company. For more information, visit kelleyabrams.com.

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