Do Early School Start Times Set Teens Up to Fail?

Accommodating Teens Learning and Sleep Needs Must be a factor in educATION

Recently my community’s public school board announced they will be looking into the possibility of changing the time of high school bus pickups, pushing out a later time to allow students the chance to sleep in more in the morning. On average teens should be sleeping 8.5-9.25 hours a night. Today’s teenagers aren’t getting the right amount of sleep and making this change will provide them a better chance of learning amongst other benefits. This announcement created quite a buzz within our online community, with some parents for the change and others against it.

Parents opposed to the change of time are concerned about how this will affect children’s extra curricular activities and after school jobs. Some are worried of the traffic and congestion increase in the morning for school drop offs within the community, while others voiced that adding more buses would be an added expense that the community’s board couldn’t afford. Many claimed that getting up early is a reality of life, one that teens need to accept and pushing the school time later won’t teach them proper work ethics, and set them up to fail in the real world.

Initiatives to start school later for teens have been gaining steam in the US and now also in Canada. These organizations mission - consisting of sleep specialists, health professionals, educators, parents, and students – is to educate on why the change is necessary, and provide resources, support and guidance to school boards and communities who are working towards the same goal. Their mission was catapulted when in August 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued their own policy statement reading that the AAP “recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.” Suddenly organizations like had the AAP, an organization of 62,000 pediatricians on their side.

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We know that more sleep for our teens means better cognitive ability with increased learning and memory but making this change is not just about the increase in grades. Lack of sleep and teenagers are now gaining more recognition as we are finding that chronic sleep deprivation at this age can have serious ramifications. While not a cause, if a teen or tween is currently experiencing bouts of depression or anxiety consistent loss of sleep can make things worse. Also teenagers suffering from sleep deprivation have higher chance of displaying more risk-taking behaviours due to issues with impulse control and we are seeing more car accidents, higher use of alcohol and drug use, and a higher suicide rate amongst teens.

So why aren’t they getting the right amount of sleep?

1. Parents opposed to the change couldn’t understand why teens can‘t just go to bed earlier. One of the main reasons that a teen has difficulty falling asleep early even if going to bed early is due to biology. As they go through puberty their body clock shifts later, releasing melatonin later in the evening and changing their circadian rhythms that guides their sleep wake cycle. Telling them to go to bed earlier won’t help much unfortunately. On average a teen needs to wake as early as 6:30 am to get ready for school to catch the bus. If we are factoring in the right amount of sleep a teen needs that would mean a bedtime of 9pm each night. Biologically speaking it can be tough for most teens to feel tired enough at that time to go to sleep.

2. Lack of parental involvement is also a factor. Parents need to be more involved in their child’s sleep routine and encourage earlier bedtimes. They need to communicate with their teens that it is important to respect their overall sleep hygiene. It’s also a good idea to be a good role model for their children and follow proper sleep hygiene themselves.

3. Technology nowadays plays a nasty part in robbing teens (and adults!) of their sleep. Phones, tablets, computers, and TV’s are finding there way into our children’s bedrooms and nothing get’s in the way of a teenager and their social life. Parents need to set boundaries with these devices and keep them out of the bedrooms.

4. Trying to keep up with it all can be difficult for teens. Between extra curricular activities, after-school jobs, and homework getting to sleep at a decent time each night becomes close to impossible.

So are we setting up our teens to fail?

First of all let’s cut these kids some slack. I truly don't think that by implementing a small shift in the start time of high school, teens will suddenly not know how to set an alarm clock or understand the importance of having to wake up early when they start in the working world. Who amongst us was prepared for “the real world” when we graduated from high school? I sure wasn’t. And getting up early or sleeping in a little wasn’t going to change that. And I don’t want to prepare my children for today’s work ethic because let’s face it - today’s work ethic sucks! We are overworked, over scheduled, and living in a completely sleep deprived society. Some parents responded to the study stating that because they could handle early mornings, busy days, and late evenings teens should be able to as well. To those of you that think you are “handling it”, I can guarantee that most of you aren't and your body is trying to tell you otherwise. We aren't setting up our kids to fail by allowing them to sleep in a few more minutes each morning. We are in fact setting up our kids for success.

What Could be Keeping Your Teen from Quality Sleep

Change needs to happen and our society at some point needs to make those changes. Teaching teens the importance of sleep and proper sleep hygiene should be part of this rollout if it happens. This can be part of the change. They need to understand why this change is happening and how it can benefit them and hopefully keep these habits throughout their life. We aren't spoiling our teens or ruining them for life by offering them a small amount of extra sleep in the morning. Like nutrition and exercise sleep is a need and we are living in a world where everyone could use some more of it. If done correctly this isn't going to happen overnight. If put into action there will be further changes throughout the community to tackle the above concerns but this is a good thing.

Now I'm off to a consult to help an adult struggling to sleep better in hopes we can better their life and health. Perhaps had they been taught the importance of sleep as a teen they wouldn't be struggling with these issues now.

I provide free child and family sleep support on my Facebook page. I invite you to join our sleep community as I work towards Good Night Sleep Site's mission of a healthier rested family unit. For more sleep tips please visit Good Night Sleep Site.

Alanna McGinn is the mother of three (1 + twins!), Founder and Senior Sleep Consultant of Good Night Sleep Site, and Representative and Director for the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC).  When she’s not on route to the bus stop or tripping over fire trucks and tea sets, she’s working with families to overcome their sleep challenges and helping them sleep better.  Find Alanna at and on Twitter @GNSleepSite.