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Are early school start times impacting students’ academic performance?

School start times
School start times that are too early can negatively affect academic performance. Source: Shutterstock

California’s governor Gavin Newsom has just signed a new law that bans middle schools in the state from starting earlier than 8.30am.

This comes after a growing movement and a US public health campaign that advocates for older students to get more sleep.

According to the Sacramento Bee, “State Sen. Anthony Portantino, the La Cañada Flintridge Democrat who wrote the law, said Senate Bill 328 is based on “indisputable” science that shows that students are healthier and happier when get to sleep in a little later.”

Portantino said, “This is a public health bill that has a positive academic outcome. The overwhelming benefit to the health and welfare of children demands that we make those changes.”

School typically starts at 8am in the US, while in countries in Asia, it can start as early as 7.30am.

In the UK, lessons start at 9 am – but even that is seen as too early by some. According to Yahoo UK, “Earlier this year in the UK MPs considered calls for the school day to start at 10am to help tired teenagers.

“The debate came after a petition urging the Government to consider the plea gained more than 183,000 signatures – a petition that gains more than 100,000 signatures is considered for debate in parliament.”

The petition calls for school start times to begin at 10am as teenagers are too tired from having to wake up so early to head to school.

The science behind later school start times

A number of studies have shown that later school start times and more sleep could have benefits for teens, such as better academic performance, cognitive functioning and overall health.

In 2017, a study by Open University found that children between the ages of 13-16 who started their school day at 10am had improved health.

According to the study, “Despite the well-established natural shifts to later wake and sleep times that occur in adolescence, most schools retain early start times.

“Currently school starting times are not adjusted for the shift to later wake and sleep times that occur naturally in adolescence.

“This mismatch between adolescent biology and the conventional practice of starting school early leads to a systematic reduction in the amount of time available for sleep to teenagers and consequently chronic sleep deficiency.”

While some argue that the problem could be solved by simply getting teens to go to bed earlier, the National Sleep Foundation in the UK stated, “This shift in teens’ circadian rhythm causes them to naturally feel alert later at night, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00pm.

“Since most teens have early school start times along with other commitments, this sleep phase delay can make it difficult to get the sleep teens need.”

A global issue

California’s new law, although not yet implemented, is reflective of a growing awareness around the world that school times are too early.

An increasing number of school districts in the US are pushing for later school start times, but California is the first to take official action.

While some parents are in opposition because it may cause some disruption to their everyday routines, the overwhelming majority are in favour because of the effect of later school times on teenagers’ overall health and academic performance.

According to the Washington Post, “No doubt there may be some challenges in figuring out the logistics of later school times. But the success of school districts that have undertaken this change show that it is not only possible but also well worth the effort in terms of better outcomes for students.”

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