This year, California became the first state in the U.S. to implement legislation that delays school start times. However, schools across the nation are still split on the best time to begin school each morning.
Fordham psychology professor Tiffany Yip, Ph.D., the mother of two teenage students herself, said she wanted to know how much research on school start times had actually been published. So, for a paper she published in Pediatrics in May, she decided to gather as many studies as she could find and analyze the data as a whole, in addition to exploring something that many researchers hadn’t studied—the impact of delayed school start times on students from different communities, particularly children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Some research suggests that people from higher socioeconomic communities already have better sleep, due to factors like safer neighborhoods, less noise and light pollution, and more regular work hours. In addition, parents from these communities may be more likely to advocate for delays in school start times,” said Yip. “In this analysis, I wondered whether delaying school start times would continue to exacerbate these disparities between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.”
The Importance of Sleep for Young People
The average start time for U.S. public high schools is 8 a.m. This is too early for teenagers, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. When adolescents don’t get enough sleep, they can experience several health risks, including being overweight and using drugs, as well as poor grades in school.
“Sleep is important at all points in the developmental lifespan, but there’s a lot of focus on adolescents because sleep coincides with their biological changes. Their circadian rhythms are shifted, which means they go to bed later and naturally want to wake up later,” said Yip. “But this change in their body clocks doesn’t coincide with our current school start times.”
Impact of Delayed Start Times
Yip’s recently published paper offered several conclusions. Her team of researchers analyzed data from 28 studies and nearly two million study participants—mostly middle and high school students, with some elementary school children. They found that data showed that delaying school start times to between 8:30 and 9 a.m. has better developmental outcomes for young students.
“Specifically, we found that kids sleep longer, and we also found that their negative mood was lower. Indicators of anxiety, depressive symptoms, and other negative psychological mood outcomes were lower when they had later start times,” she said.
Unfortunately, her team found that there wasn’t enough data collected on student demographics to make a well-informed conclusion on how students classified by sex, race, school size, and percent free/reduced lunch are impacted by delayed school start times. But Yip said research suggests that private school students tend to benefit more from later start times than public school students.
“There is some sort of suggestion that kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds will benefit more from a delay in school start times. This means that potentially, a delay can exacerbate some of the sleep disparities that we’ve seen in other research. We need more data to figure that out,” said Yip. “But we know that as parents and educators, we need to be careful about how implementing delays in school start times in higher socioeconomic communities might contribute to existing disparities in sleep health.”
A Controversial Topic Among Students and Their Families
As students return to classrooms this fall, this topic will reenter many conversations, said Yip. Many of those discussions are intense, she said.
“This subject gets people riled up like crazy because it has huge ripple effects,” said Yip. “Parents need to get to work on time, particularly those who commute into New York City … But for kids who have a 7 a.m. start time, we have to factor in how long it takes for them to get to school. In Manhattan, some kids commute really far—sometimes an hour and a half to certain magnet schools. What time are they waking up?”
Yip has a personal opinion, too. She has two children—a middle schooler and a high schooler—whose schools started to delay their start times in the 2021-2022 academic year. The middle school changed its start time from 8 to 8:30 a.m., and the high school switched from 7:30 to 8 a.m., she said.
“My kids are probably not representative because I already study sleep, and I’m really strict about bedtime and all this other stuff. But I do think the delayed school start times help with the chaos of the morning,” said Yip. “It’s hard to wake up super early, especially when it’s winter and it’s dark outside. I think my kids like the new policy quite a bit. I like it, too.”
It’ll take more effort for other schools to delay their start times, said Yip. After all, there are many stakeholders involved, including parents, educators, and bus drivers. But when it comes down to it, the biggest motivator will likely be the students themselves, she said.
“Having data like this is one piece. But what’s going to really drive this is what kids are telling us,” said Yip. “If they’re saying, ‘I want to sleep in’ or ‘I feel better when I get a little bit more sleep,’ I think those sorts of things are going to really help us move the needle on school start times.”