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A Mom Explains Why High School Start Times Need to Change

Sufficient sleep is a necessity for all children, but teens often don’t get enough of it. One of the biggest reasons why: early school start times. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools begin at 8:30 a.m. or later, the majority of them start before then.

As a physician assistant, medical writer, and mom to two young adults, Kari Oakes understands how vital sleep is to the health and wellbeing of adolescents. Since 2011, Oakes has volunteered as the research director for Start School Later, a nonprofit organization aimed at increasing awareness of the link between sleep and adolescent health and advocating for legislation to change school start times.

With a new school year upon us, we called Oakes to learn more about how school start times impact teens and the work she’s doing to ensure youngsters can get the sleep they desperately need.

Q: How does a child’s sleep habits change as they enter their teen years?

At adolescence, your body clock shifts to be significantly later. Most teenagers have a very difficult time falling asleep before about 11 p.m. This is true even if they’re sleep-deprived. This gradually corrects itself over the young adult years—so even a 22-, 23-, or 24-year-old teacher is probably going to be on a later schedule than a 55-year-old teacher.

The problem is, some of the best sleep for many people happens in the early morning hours. When you truncate a teenager’s sleep and make them wake up too early, that means they’re losing those last two or three hours of sleep that would have been some of the most restorative for them. Think about how terrible you feel if you have to wake up at 3 a.m. to catch a flight. This is what we’re doing to teenagers with these schedules.

Q: What happens to a teenager when they’re sleep-deprived?

Insufficient sleep increases the risk of poor eating, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation in teens. These are all really bad health effects that happen in the moment. We also know that when teenagers are deprived of sleep, they are at risk many years later for obesity, even if they’ve corrected their sleep.

Q: How did early school start times affect your family?

My daughter went through all four years of high school having to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for her 6:20 a.m. bus pickup. She was super-involved—she was an athlete and had to travel a lot, she worked, she had really good grades—but she was very irritable and anxious for some of her time in high school. Most months, there was at least one day when I called her in sick and let her sleep in because I knew I was harming her by dragging her out of bed with so little sleep.

My son went through the first year of high school with this schedule, but then we moved from the Washington, D.C., area to the Madison, Wisconsin area, and his school schedule didn’t require him to be out of bed until about 7:30 a.m. for an 8:20 a.m. start. The change in our family was remarkable. It meant he could get up in the morning and have breakfast, and I could ask him to do chores like take the dog around the block or unload the dishwasher.

My son did theater, played a varsity sport, and worked—and even though he got out of school later in the day, at 3:45 p.m., all of that stuff still worked out fine. Plus, we were able to have a relaxed evening and not be stressed about having to try to force this kid to be in bed by 10 when he still had homework to do and we knew he wasn’t going to go to sleep anyway.

Related: The student athlete’s sleep playbook

Q: How did you get involved with Start School Later?

It started when I looked at the bus schedule for my daughter. I thought there had to be a typo. But it was true. She was eventually able to pare back her morning routine and get a little more sleep, but it was a rough way to start.

I thought it would just be a matter of educating the school district and letting them know they were running school at hours that weren’t compatible with adolescent health and wellbeing—but it wasn’t that easy.

Time passed, and I eventually met Terra Ziporyn Snider, who started the nonprofit. She and her family had been working on this very issue in the same school district for five or six years, with absolutely zero progress. It became four of us sitting around a kitchen table scheming about this and realizing something had to be done because the effect on adolescent health and wellbeing is so horrible.

Terra realized that social media allowed for people to band together to support a hyper-local issue in a way that would’ve been hard before, so she got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an Instagram account when that came along. Eventually, we formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and began this grassroots movement.

Q: What kind of work does Start School Later do?

We now have 130 local chapters working in school districts around the country, advocating for sleep health for middle and higher schoolers. We’re all unpaid volunteers. We have resources that chapter leaders can share, close alliances with sleep researchers around the world, and a board of directors that works to keep us mission-focused.

We’re realizing that our mission extends past school start times—it’s about educating a community, and even a nation, about the importance of sleep. And there are some people who are dedicated to helping adolescents get better sleep. Some very committed sleep researchers will even drive to tiny towns and testify before school boards.

“…our mission extends past school start times—it’s about educating a community, and even a nation, about the importance of sleep.”

One of the most exciting things we’ve done recently is to build an online interactive college sleep education class called Sleep 101. We got a private grant to work with the sleep researchers from Harvard School of Medicine’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital to create the course. It’s about 45 minutes, and it’s designed to be done online—ideally before students start their freshman year of college. It’s all about building healthy sleep into your college life. Harvard required all their freshman take the course last year, and we just signed a deal with UCLA.

We’re also looking to do a free online high school version of the course. A big new effort of ours is to build relationships with other nonprofits and companies in the industry so that we’re able to offer more sleep education like this and do more awareness-raising.

Related: A simple way to help teens get more sleep

Q: What’s the response been like from schools?

We’ve had success stories around the country for middle and high schools that have made the change. Right where I live in Madison, middle schools were the ones that were starting way too early, around 7 or 7:30 a.m. They’re changing their schedules this September. There was a school board member who knew it was the right thing to do. He took charge and did some awareness-raising, and now the change is happening here.

Teachers unions have also been very supportive in some districts—they understand that they’re going to be teaching students that aren’t zombies if they change their school start times.

Q: How can other parents get involved?

The first thing a parent can do is go to our website, which has a million resources. On our website, you can check to see if there’s a chapter in your state or region and request to join a local Facebook page. You’re likely to find more allies than you realize through that.

Of course, sometimes there will be pushback—people will talk about crazy teenagers and screen time, or they’ll say it’s a parent’s responsibility to get the kids to bed. And it seems like everybody has some story about how their kid did just fine. To which I would say: My kid did just fine in those four years, but imagine how much better—and happier and fuller—her life would have been if she hadn’t been a walking zombie when she was trying to do all this stuff.

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Christina Heiser is the content manager at Saatva. She has held previous positions at Everyday Health, Women's Health, and L'Oréal. When she's not working, you can find Christina checking out the latest boutique fitness classes in New York City, cheering on her college basketball team (go Red Storm!), and trying new beauty and wellness trends.