Dennis Rosen M.D.

Sleeping Angels

Should High School Start at 11 AM? (Part 2)

Is a swim meet more important than a good night's sleep?

Posted Mar 11, 2009

Becky writes:

I have always found this earlier progression of school start times to go completely against biological sleep patterns. My high school started at 7:15 am! By 7:30 I was trying to wrap my exhausted brain around physics questions. The problem remains, however, in extracurricular activities that become much more numerous in high school and have many physical and psychological benefits. If school is to remain the same length of time, school wouldn't get out until almost 6pm and then what about sports practice and club meetings? Kids would be getting home just in time to eat a late dinner and go to bed. The answer may be in reducing school hours. I don't know if there are any studies on it, but it would be interesting to see if the quality of information absorbed during peak times of mental acuity outweigh the number of instruction hours when some of those hours are spent fatigued and unfocused. Another final barrier would be getting teens to actually use the extra sleep hours. If school isn't till 11 am, teens may view every night as a weekend to stay up late.

I think her points are well taken. Clearly, just delaying the beginning of classes in the morning is not a stand-alone solution, and would have to be accompanied by a continued effort by parents to get their kids to ready themselves for sleep at a more appropriate hour. Starting school at 11 AM is probably not a reasonable or realistic solution for many, many reasons, but perhaps scheduling the first class for 9 AM instead of 8 or 7 AM is.

And yes, starting school at 9 AM would have a domino effect in terms of the other activities that kids are engaged in. But it is very important to remember that getting a good night's sleep, both in terms of quality and quantity, is no less important for one's physical health than eating right, or getting enough exercise, and that in children it has been shown that the lack of a good night's sleep is associated with negative cognitive, developmental and behavioral consequences. Sleeping is not just something to be done when we've run out of better things to do, and unfortunately, this isn't as widely appreciated as it should be.

I gave a talk a couple weeks ago about sleep in school age children at a city-wide parent teacher organization meeting, and one parent asked me for recommendations on how to reconcile the age appropriate sleep needs for his child with the swim meets she participates in three times a week which run until 9 PM and which prevent her from getting enough sleep on those nights. My answer was that the day really does have only 24 hours in it, and that beyond a certain point, the additional things we try and fit into those 24 hours necessarily come at the expense of others. Adults make these choices all the time, with many of them becoming chronically sleep-deprived, and teenagers see this behavior and try to emulate it. My feeling, though, is that as parents, we have a responsibility to guide our children to better health, even if it means making certain sacrifices. Just as we wouldn't accept our children eating only one meal a day, or showering once a week so as not to "waste time", ensuring that they get a good night's sleep is very important, even if it means that they need to reduce some of the activities they so desperately try to cram into their already very busy schedules.




Dennis Rosen, M.D.

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