Policy Prescriptions

Study Finds Late School Start Improves Teen Behavior

A new study in the journal Sleep has confirmed the idea that there could be positive outcomes if high schoolers were able to start school later in the morning. This research, performed by faculty members at St. Lawrence University in New York, set out to determine whether "sleep, mood, behavior and academics improved after a 45-minute delay in high school start time." The outcome: Even though students delayed but didn't necessarily extend their sleep time, the researchers did find "lasting improvements" in two areas: tardiness and disciplinary violations.

Beginning in May 2012, Associate Professors of psychology Pamela Thacher and Serge Onyper collected baseline data from school records and student self-reporting at New York's Glen Falls High School. At that point the start time for classes was 7:45 a.m. After the start time was moved to 8:26 at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, the researchers performed two follow-ups, one in November 2012 and the other in May 2013. Instead of school ending at 2:22 p.m., it ended each day at 3 p.m.

At the first follow-up, students reported 20 minutes of additional sleep. Yet, in the second follow-up, students maintained later rise times but delayed bedtimes, thereby "returning total sleep to baseline levels."

The researchers found that the later start time improved "daytime behaviors." However, it had no effect on physical or mental health; nor did it increase exam grades or standardized test scores.

Thacher and Onyper acknowledged that changing school times can inspire strong opinions, both for and against. To encourage support of the project, the school communicated with its families through monthly newsletters that shared updates on the sleep study and links to other research about teens and sleep.

One argument against later start times is that they'll have a negative impact on students who participate in after-school sports. A local television news story about the experiment interviewed a student athlete who was initially "dead-set" against the time change. After two years, even she was convinced. As the report quoted, "I love the later start time. I honestly can say that. You know, I can admit that I'm wrong. I was wrong."

"When students are delinquent and aggressive, late and insubordinate, learning cannot occur," said Thacher in a prepared statement. "We believe our findings with respect to discipline and tardiness are significant because improvements in these domains can help every student in the classroom. For example, benefits could include improved safety, morale, ease and efficiency of operation for most school systems."

To gain changes in those other areas, she suggested, may require "larger improvements in sleep patterns."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.