It starts early -- too early -- in cities and towns across America, where kids sometimes get up before dawn in order to attend schools that start their days earlier than necessary.
That's a huge problem, according to the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), and almost every other scientific or research group that has studied the question.
In short, they all advocate that we should start school later in the morning, since kids' still-developing brains simply don't function well that early in the day.
"In those first early morning hours ... children are just essentially half-asleep. They're not absorbing information," Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR. "So why are we putting them in the classroom?"
One reason might be because adults run the systems, and so a majority of of schools (and especially those in more rural districts), still start their days much earlier than experts recommend. To put it succinctly:
- The APA recommends a start time no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high schools, as Lisa L. Lewis, author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen wrote recently.
- But at least as of a few years ago, about 85 percent of American public high schools and 80 percent of American middle schools started their days earlier than that standard, and roughly one-third of schools started before 8 or even 7:30 a.m.
There may be signs of progress. For example, the reason we're paying so much attention to this right now is that as of July 1, California became the first state in the country to require most public middle schools to start no earlier than 8 a.m., and most public high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
New York and New Jersey have similar bills pending in their state legislatures, although the likelihood of passage isn't clear.
I've written a lot about sleep and neuroscience, including perhaps the most fascinating recent research, suggesting what happens when people don't get enough sleep:
- First, we lose the subjective ability to judge our lack of sleep;
- Second, even when we think we've "caught up on sleep," maybe on the weekend, objective tests show we continue to have "deficits ... in vigilance and episodic memory," that we don't recognize, even if we feel more rested; and
- Third, persistent lack of sleep leaves people with "heightened susceptibility to neurodegenerative disorders," including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and other things you don't want to get.
Now, combine those adult trends with some of the developmental considerations and effects of lack of sleep on teens (anything less than 8 to 10 hours for teens).
As Lewis, who in addition to writing a book on the subject describes herself as having played a role in "helping get California's landmark legislation on healthy school start times passed," put it:
Teen sleep deprivation affects grades, attendance, and graduation rates. It leads to greater risk of injury for adolescent athletes, and more drowsy-driving crashes. And it worsens mental-health issues--including anxiety and suicidality.
That's profoundly unsettling, particularly in light of data released by the CDC in April showing that 44 percent of high schoolers said they'd had "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" during the past year, and 20 percent had seriously contemplated suicide.
Actually, let's not let the drowsy driving concern slip by without emphasis: a study in 2014 suggested that later start times could result in "up to a 65 to 70 percent reduction in teen car accidents" (along with higher standardized test scores).
Finally, in districts that have in fact delayed start times, it does appear that students shift a considerable chunk of their newfound time to sleep. It all seems to add up to a pretty common sense approach, even conceding that moving start times might have a whole range of other adult ramifications, including transportation and logistical changes, union contracts, parents' child care needs, etc.
This whole story combines the topics of two of my most popular free ebooks: How to Raise Successful Kids (7th Edition), and The Free Book of Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand and Train Your Brain for Life.
If you've read this far, I suspect you'll agree on their importance. Because frankly, perhaps even 8:30 a.m. is still too early for kids to start school every morning.
As Walker, the neuroscience professor from Berkeley put it, if you really wanted to design the school day around how kids' brains function best, "the ideal school start time would be probably around 10 o'clock in the morning."