Sleep and Academic Performance

It’s generally recognized that getting a good night’s sleep is necessary for overall mental and physical health and well-being. Recent studies, however, indicate that today’s adolescents aren’t getting enough sleep, and that lack of sleep may be directly affecting their ability to learn.

The National Sleep Foundation is among the professional sleep research organizations whose findings indicate a direct correlation between sleep and academic performance in young students, particularly those in middle school and high school. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends middle schools and high schools delay starting morning classes until 8:30 or later. The results of these studies have prompted them to call for delaying the start of the school day to no earlier than 8:30 am, which is a move widely supported by medical doctors, educators, politicians and, of course, students themselves, but obviously for different reasons!.

Forty-five states have at least some school districts where the school day starts at 8:30 in the morning or later. There’s currently a bill on California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk that if signed would prohibit middle schools and high schools from starting classes before 8:30 a.m. Supporters argue that if students were able to get more sleep, attendance, grades and graduation rates would all improve. Senate Bill 328 would include charter schools, but exclude schools in rural areas. If the bill is signed, school districts would have until 2021 to make the transition.

School Starting Times and Academic Performance

Not getting enough sleep on school nights is common among middle school and high school students. Almost 90% of high school students regularly sleep less than the recommended nine or more hours. It’s estimated that 40% of high schools nationwide begin classes before 8:00 a.m., with only 15% starting at 8:30 or later. The median U.S. middle school starting time is 8:00 a.m., and over 40% of them start at 7:45 or earlier. According to National Sleep Foundation studies, this lack of sleep means the average adolescent is seriously sleep deprived.

Based on an American Academy of Pediatrics 2011/2012 school year study, California has over three million students enrolled in middle school and high school, three quarters of whom attend classes that begin before 8:30 in the morning. Classes at some schools begin as early as 7:30, with the average start time being shortly after 8:00 a.m.

Sleep research indicates that the circadian rhythms, or “body clocks”, in teenagers work differently than those of younger children and adults. The production of melatonin, which is the naturally occurring substance that induces sleep, doesn’t start in their still-growing bodies until some time between eleven p.m. and midnight. Melatonin production in adolescents continues until around 8:00 a.m., which is when their body clocks tell them it’s time to wake up. Most, however, are already out of bed because of early school starting times.

Waking up too early means that these young people also miss out on important rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which helps people consolidate memories and remember what he or she learned during the day. It’s also when dreaming takes place. Deep REM sleep usually occurs during the last third of the sleep cycle, which for a typical teenager if left uninterrupted would be between six and nine in the morning.

Effects on Attendance and Test Scores

Results of a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation indicate that many young people are so groggy that they don’t bother showing up for the first class of the day, particularly if it starts earlier than 8:00 a.m. Of those students that do attend, almost thirty percent fall asleep during class because their young minds aren’t yet fully awake. Failing to show up and dozing off during early morning classes contributes directly to poor standardized test results, low grades and school dropout rates.

Many people argue that delaying classes until 8:30 a.m. or later will improve both attendance rates and test scores. School districts in some areas of the country, including Virginia, Kentucky and Connecticut have already moved their school starting times forward. As predicted, the result in these areas is higher attendance records and improved test scores.

How Much Sleep is Enough?

The amount of sleep people need each night depends in large part upon their age. According to the National Sleep Foundation, preschoolers need 10 to 13 hours’ sleep, while older adults need just seven or eight hours. Although requirements can vary among individuals, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers from 14 to 17 years of age get eight to ten hours of sleep nightly.

Teenagers’ body clocks are different from those of younger children and adults, which keeps them from becoming drowsy until around 11:00 or later at night. If a student’s first class starts at 8:00 a.m., he or she would probably need to get out of bed around 6:30 in order to get dressed, eat breakfast and make it to class on time. This routine means the student gets perhaps no more than seven hours of sleep nightly, as opposed to the recommended eight to ten hours. The result is sleep deprivation.

How Too Little Sleep Effects Adolescents

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that in order to get the amount of sleep middle and high school students need, classes should start at 8:30 a.m. or later. In addition to poor academic performance, there are serious health risks associated with not getting enough sleep. These include heart disease, obesity (which can lead to type 2 diabetes), smoking, depression, drinking alcohol and drug use. Too little sleep can also impair drivers and lead to serious accidents. Studies conducted using driving simulators indicated that getting too little sleep has the same effect as being moderately intoxicated. Sleep deprived teenagers behind the wheel are just as dangerous as if they had consumed three or four drinks.

Why More School Districts Haven’t Adopted Later Start Dates

The answer appears to be due at least in part to logistics. Starting the school day later would shift the times students are dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon. School bus schedules and carpool arrangements would need to be adjusted accordingly. Delaying the start of the school day would mean many working parents could no longer drop their kids off at school and still get to work on time. Because of increased ridership, school districts would need to purchase more very costly busses to accommodate those students who were no longer being dropped off by their parents or arriving by carpool.

Moving class starting times forward obviously means that the school day wouldn’t end until later. This would affect students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities, as well as those young people with after school part-time jobs. Despite these drawbacks, a RAND Corporation economic analysis concluded the benefits of later starting times would far outweigh any additional costs. According to their study, adopting school starting times of 8:30 a.m. or later could add $83 billion to the economy over the next ten years. The money result from higher graduation rates producing more skilled workers, along with a decrease in the costs of health care and auto accidents involving sleep-deprived teenagers.

As more research is conducted into the relationship between sleep and academic performance, look for an increasing number of school districts throughout California and the rest of the country to delay school starting times.