In February, while going to the library to check out a manga comic one of my students recommended, I (Thomas Franich) grabbed a copy (as I always do) of Scientific American and read the February editorial “Let Teenagers Sleep.” The editors advocated for delaying school start times based on overwhelming evidence that teens are biologically driven to go to bed later and wake up later than other age groups. The editors pushed for that change because later start times were linked to students’ well-being and possible improvements in academic performance.
I was excited to hear others endorsing what I’ve argued for more than a decade, because, as a high school teacher, I know this is an issue that is important to my students. They are people who rarely (if ever) have input on the policies that shape their everyday lives.
This is why I gave the piece to the students in my physics and biology classes and asked them to read it and compare the claims to their experiences. We had a highly engaging conversation about the subject, and so I asked them to write letters to the editors at SciAm to share their thoughts.
What they wrote was illuminating.
I learned that my students are exhausted from the moment they get up in the morning, around 6:00 A.M. on average, until the moment they finally go to sleep, many at about 1:00 A.M. the next day. They told me that they can’t fall asleep for hours, even though they feel foggy, leaden and tired. But, a few days later, we had a two-hour snow delay. My students got to sleep in. Later in class, they told me they felt refreshed, alert and aware, and they attributed the change to getting more sleep. I noticed changes too. They were more attentive, more engaged and more connected. Ancient as I am to them at 37, even I struggle to get up on time, so if every day was as on point as that one, I’m sure my students would integrate new knowledge far better than they do now.
We need data-driven school schedules, not just at Sandia High School, but throughout the Albuquerque public school district. And, luckily for our students, our district is listening. Sandia students, who have started school at 7:25 A.M. for many years will start next year at 8:40 A.M. The rest of the district’s high schools will also start later, meaning the 23,000 high schoolers in our district will get the extra rest their bodies require.
In general, the students are energized by this announcement. They are highly motivated academically, and they think they’ll earn better grades. They think they’ll be more “chill” next year. Most importantly, they think they will learn better and retain more knowledge. Some are apprehensive about how their extracurriculars will be affected or how their employers will adjust their after-school schedules. A few students are concerned about how their families will adjust to the new schedule because they have siblings who start school at a different time. Yet, while there are nuances to settle, I agree with our superintendent who wrote in a letter to our community: “In a year or in three … there won’t be a push to go back to earlier start times for our … students.”
My students are hopeful for a better future, and I’m eager to see how the data from our schools will change in the next few years. Public policy should be informed with scientific data whenever possible and even though this is decades late, I am so happy that our students' dreams are finally becoming reality.
But don’t take it from me. Here is what a few of my students have to say on sleep, school start times and student life:
Christina Cardiel, 9th grade:
Next year with the school time pushback, I truly believe students will be able to get enough sleep, which is one of the most important times for the body to grow and repair. Even with the new school start time, though, parents could let their kids take a 30-minute nap after school to reenergize and make up for the sleep they may have missed during the night. I’m glad that a decent time was set, so parents can still pick up and drop kids off while still being able to go to work. I think a school day of 8:40 A.M. to 3:40 P.M. is perfect to be able to function and learn throughout the school day and with an early enough ending time to do homework and rest—even with after-school activities.
Alia Carson, 9th grade:
If you’re walking through the hallways of my high school on a typical day, you will almost certainly hear pained mutterings of “I’m tired,” again and again. On an average day, many students have difficulty concentrating in early morning classes, and tend not to absorb the information we will later be tested on. When school start time was delayed an hour or two by weather a few months ago, my peers and I felt much more engaged and attentive. Although a relatively small shift in schedule, this hour could have far-reaching benefits. My own school district has just adopted a delayed start time for the new school year. Hopefully, this can serve as an example to other districts that this change is both possible and desirable. Perhaps being more stentorian about the issues discussed in “Let Teenagers Sleep” and explaining them unambiguously with data-supported urgency to politicians (who tend to bring up issues such as suicide, obesity and low test scores in campaign speeches) will drive policy supporting a healthier school schedule.
Marcos Martinez, 11th grade:
I believe the idea that giving teenagers more time to sleep, and the data supporting it, is an important step in bettering our education system. I hope that other school districts realize the significance of rest, so that my classmates and I and future generations may lead healthier and happier lives through our teen years. I find myself relieved that my future schedule will allow me to sleep in a little more, and I am not as worried about having to constantly learn while the only thing on my mind is sleep. I was happy to do Mr. Franich’s assignment and write the letter to Scientific American, and I am proud to have a teacher who cares for me and my friends’ mental health. Sometimes trying to make change can be daunting, especially when it comes to policies and procedures made by adults. By having an adult show me how I can make change gives me hope and a newfound passion to make my world better.
Kian Mendoza, 11th grade:
After so many years of research and evidence, it is clear we not only deserve, but need change. I have struggled with a severe lack of sleep throughout middle school and high school, and I've observed many of my peers, day after day, talk about how tired they are and how they only slept for so few hours. Not only has lack of sleep affected my mood and alertness at school, but I believe it has affected my academic performance. When I started having sleep problems in middle school, I started experiencing trouble with forgetfulness, depression, and my grades slowly began to decline. This has continued into high school, despite my, my doctor’s and my therapist’s best efforts. Most teens do not party every night or stay up late despite stereotypes. This is not about politics, it's about teenage health. Our district policy has changed our start time from 7:25 A.M. to around 8:40 A.M. for high school. For a long time, because of bus driver issues, high school had to start earlier, but why can we not have elementary school start times be earlier? Younger children’s natural sleep cycle is earlier than most teens. Our school board members and I acknowledge that this change will affect many ways in which our school system runs, but it should overall benefit the mental and physical health for teens and teachers and push our students an extra step towards a more effective education. I’d like to see this change be national, so that all American youth can have this opportunity for a healthier life and future.
Sakari Morris, 11th grade:
When I get more sleep I have more energy and more than usual, I want to do my schoolwork. I also am in a way better mood and sleep better the next night, too. When we recently had a two-hour snow delay, there was a better atmosphere in classes and in the hallways, plus everyone was doing their work and paying more attention in class. I am looking forward to the next school year because I think it'll be a lot better for us to start at 8:40 A.M. I also think attendance is going to be better because people won’t be as late or skip first period as much. I feel really proud about my advocacy for later start times because I feel like I’m doing something different for my junior year and that I'll be part of something that might make a difference. It’s also cool because I feel like I can voice my opinion and it will be listened to and it won't be treated like I'm just another kid who doesn’t know what they’re talking about or that I’m just overreacting.
Christian Ramirez-Acabal, 11th grade:
Who knew sleep had such an importance on our mental health? I certainly did not, I just thought sleep was just a way to regain our energy. I was severely depressed from 7th grade to sophomore year. Some days I didn't want to even get up from bed. My mother would let me sleep an extra hour when it got so severe, I would have mental breakdowns. But that one hour of sleep helped way more than I can express in words; I felt happy, alive, willing to go to school, feeling like I could do anything, write a 10-page essay and breathe. Recently, the board of education passed a new thing where they moved the starting hour of school from 7:25 A.M to 8:40 A.M. A lot of my peers are angry about this, saying that their jobs are more important. Even my mom is upset about this because she is worried about getting to after school appointments. But I feel like this could benefit us greatly in our education and allow our mental health to recover. And if it doesn't, it was a great experiment to try.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.