The director of Seattle Children’s Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center says the move to later start times for the city’s middle and high schools is a step in the right direction.
Seattle teenagers — and their parents and teachers — may rejoice because they won’t have to get up so early for school this fall. But the changes to school start times (later for most middle and high schools; earlier for elementary schools) will still be an adjustment for most, if not all, of the district’s 53,300 students and their families.
To prepare, parents might want to consider setting alarms for their children now to reset their sleep cycles, according to Dr. Maida Chen, director of Seattle Children’s Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center.
Chen was a member of both Seattle Public Schools’ bell-times task forces, one of which recommended start-time changes and the other how to put them into practice. The Seattle School Board voted in November to start high schools, most middle schools and some K-8 schools at 8:45 a.m. Most elementary schools start at 7:55 a.m., and the remaining elementary and K-8 schools being at 9:35 a.m.
Education Lab spoke to Chen about sleep schedules, their effect on teenagers and how families can better prepare for the first day of school. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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What do you think about the decision to move start times?
I think it’s a great step in the right direction for trying to maximize our students’ learning potential and overall learning outcomes. I’m really happy that it’s happening. Teenagers, when they start going through puberty, have something physiological happen in their bodies, where they go to bed later and they wake up later. It’s a hormonal phenomenon that happens in all teenagers. Some are better with coping with it than others, but we know the overwhelming majority of teenagers are quite sleepy when they try to get up as early as the previous start times.
How did we know that earlier start times affect teenagers?
It was, frankly, when their bodies and minds were still asleep. These are kids who are trying to go to school, get along their peers and parents, but they’re still asleep. The scary thing to me was that they were driving to school. Moving the school times back to align with their biology just makes sense. Their job as teenagers is to go to school. It shows the importance of school learning, health and safety.
In a perfect world, when would high schools start?
If the only thing that students needed to do was go to school, the ideal time would be 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m., but we know there is more to being a teenager in this day and age than just school, like extra-curriculars and jobs. So they have to balance that with their biology, so 8:30 a.m. is a reasonable time to start. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for adolescents).
How can families prepare for the first day of school?
The first and foremost thing is to know what time your school is actually starting. That sounds elementary, but it’s not uniform across the district. Understand that it’s an adjustment for everybody; whatever is affecting your family is affecting your local community.
For the teenagers — just because their school is starting a little bit later doesn’t mean they get free rein over what they want to do the night before. Families need to prioritize sleep health, like turning off electronics prior to sleeping and making sure they go to sleep at a reasonable time. They don’t get to go to sleep any time they want to.