The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced a policy statement on August 25 recommending that middle and high schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 A.M. or later.
The policy is described in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, and the leader of the team of pediatricians who developed the policy , Dr. Judith Owens, is quoted as saying “Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today. 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. Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.” The policy statement is accompanied by a technical report, “Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences”.
This policy statement provides powerful professional support for grass roots movements that have been working to make school start times compatible with teenagers’ sleep needs for over a decade. Start School Later, the biggest and best known advocacy group, has been documenting the success and failures of groups of parents and professionals in every region of the United States. School districts that have made the changes to later start times have generally been pleased with how teachers, parents, and students have responded to the changes. Resistance to changes has been seen in some districts, with common concerns including costs and trouble of changing bus schedules, inconvenience for parents who have to get to work early, and less time in the afternoons for extracurricular activities such as athletics. Critics also frequently point out that students will simply stay up later and will get no more sleep than when schools began earlier in the morning.
Research supporting the AAP policy has been accumulating for many years, and has convinced pediatricians that changes will be of ultimate benefit to the academic achievement and psychological well-being of American adolescents. But every public policy issue in this country has been increasingly politicized. For opponents of change, no amount of research will likely be sufficient. In the case of school start times, the most powerful “lobby” that might be opposed is that of high school athletics. If proponents of athletics oppose an earlier start time because it infringes on afternoon practice schedules, school administrators will be reluctant to challenge the status quo. It will be interesting to watch how proponents and opponents of the school start time movement respond to this AAP policy.