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A Plea for High School To Start Later — From Parents of Exhausted Teens Everywhere

True story: when I was in high school, my morning school bus arrived at 7:15. Do you want to guess what time I woke up for school on most days? Yup, I’d wake up at 7:00 a.m. … which left me exactly 15 minutes to wash up, put my clothes on, and walk across the street to catch my bus. I can’t remember if I ate breakfast, but my guess is that I skipped it most days.

It sounds like a terrible plan, and I sometimes wonder how I survived and why my parents didn’t do more to stop me from making questionable life decisions. But now that I am the parent of a high schooler who also wakes up as late as possible to start his day, I understand it a little better.

That’s right — my high schooler seems to have followed in his old mom’s footsteps. His bus comes at around 7:20 a.m., and although he has the sense to wake up a little earlier than I used to — at a respectful 6:45 a.m. — he doesn’t really leave his room till 7:00 a.m. to do all his getting ready for the day.

When he was younger, getting up early wasn’t an issue. In fact, there were many years that I wished he’d sleep just a little later in the morning so that I could sleep too. But then high school rolled around — along with all the changes that happen then (ahem, puberty). His bedtime started to get later and later, and so did his morning wake up time.

At first, I fought him on all this. But then I remembered my own teen years, how difficult it was to fall asleep at a decent hour, and how desperately I needed extra sleep in the mornings. So I did a little research. Well, it turns out that teenagers actually are natural night owls! Their circadian rhythms change so that they simply aren’t tired until later in the evening. Fun fact: teens naturally secrete melatonin (that sleep-inducing hormone our bodies produce in response to darkness) a whole two hours later than they used to when they were younger.

And yet, teens still need a whole lot of sleep. The CDC says that high schoolers need to sleep 8-10 hours a night for good health. Getting enough sleep not only ensures that teens are alert and energetic, but also protects them against obesity, improves their academic performance, and makes them less likely to engage in substance abuse.

As you can imagine, though, most teens aren’t getting nearly enough sleep. A CDC study found that 7 out of 10 high schoolers — a whopping 72% — aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep. And you wanna know when this sleep deprivation is most likely to happen? On school days! Between extracurricular activities and homework, getting it all done and then unwinding enough to sleep at a reasonable hour is hard.

So if high schoolers can’t really get to sleep much earlier than they do, why oh why are we making them wake up at the crack of dawn to go to school? I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but my elementary-aged kid’s school doesn’t start till 9 a.m., whereas my high schooler is expected to begin class at 7:59 a.m. My elementary school kid has no problem waking up at 6:30 every morning, but my high schooler can barely make it out the door by 7:15.

Why on earth doesn’t high school start later? Make it make sense!

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Both the CDC and AAP have recommended for years that high school start later. Their recommendation is that high school start no later than 8:30 am. Some high schools are moving in that direction, and in 2019, California became the first state to pass a law making it a requirement that high schools start after 8:30 am. Still, the vast majority of high schools still start earlier.

The research and recommendations are out there, so I’m not exactly sure why more high schools haven’t adopted later start times for teens. The argument I’ve heard most is that later start times would make it more difficult for teens to have time for extracurriculars and after school jobs. Later start times may also be more complicated for working parents, who need to drop their kids off at school on the way to work.

Still, it seems that the benefits outweigh the negatives here. Yes, there would need to be some schedule shifts. But when teens are more well rested, they are also healthier, do better academically, and are less likely to engage in risky activities. Not to mention that they have more energy, and are just friendlier, less moody humans. Wouldn’t that benefit us all — parents, teachers, and teens themselves?

I wonder if some people just aren’t aware of the facts about teen sleep, and assume that teens go to sleep late because they are glued to their phones all night or are just plain lazy. Yes, practices like too much screen time before bed don’t help, and we should be teaching our teens good sleep hygiene habits and all that.

But ultimately, it’s not teens’ fault that they are grumpy grouches in the morning, and can’t fall asleep at a decent hour at night. It’s biology — and rather than trying to push our teens into a schedule that suits our own needs, we should consider what works best for their changing bodies and growing needs.

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