Adjusting to later school start times is good for overall adolescent health: Opinion

As a pediatrician and a child and adolescent psychologist, we are seeing, like so many of our colleagues, teenagers suffering from the impact of not getting enough sleep daily. We treat children who have to wake up at 5:30 am, get ready for school and get to a bus stop by 6:15 am. We hear from concerned parents and teachers about teens sleeping at school – if not missing school altogether – getting poorer grades, seeing diminished athletic performance and struggling with social interactions, mood disturbances and other mental health concerns. We notice they are not getting enough exercise and missing meals as they are so tired they often nap all afternoon and into the evening, only making it harder to fall asleep until well after midnight.

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We see teens asleep in the waiting rooms and on exam tables in our offices.

There’s no simple solution. While beneficial, just telling teens to shut off their devices and go to bed earlier won’t change the outcome.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Medical Association all agree that later school start times for middle and high school children make sense. The AAP has been advocating for age-appropriate school start times since at least 2014, noting biological differences make it naturally difficult for most teens to fall asleep before 11 pm Having teenage students wake up in the early morning prohibit hours an optimal amount of sleep for healthy brain and physical health, which is widely considered to be 8.5-9.5 hours per night. Many teens and adolescents attempt to catch up on sleep on the weekends, thereby reducing their “sleep debt,” but this can disrupt circadian rhythms and only worsen their morning sleepiness at school. It’s an endless cycle.

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The effects of not getting enough sleep are numerous. Sleep-deficient teens suffer from high rates of accidental injury, hypertension, obesity and diabetes. Their mental health suffers as well. Problems with inattention, behavior and learning, as well as depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts are all increased by regularly sleeping less than the recommended amount. Current rates of depression and anxiety in teens are at pandemic level proportions. As providers, we cannot even begin to treat these conditions if a teenager doesn’t have a baseline of adequate sleep. Something has to change.

The biological factors that make middle and high school students stay awake later and need more sleep are not modifiable. School start times are. Research is clear that school districts that have shifted to later middle and high school start times observe increased attendance rates, higher GPAs, and better state test and college admission scores. Focus and attention, as well as the quality of child-family interactions, also improved. Later start times led to fewer students involved in car accidents, fewer students sleeping during instruction, and fewer school disciplinary actions (APA, 2014).

Though JCPS and all similar school systems face a complex combination of factors to weigh, we support steps toward later school start times for middle and high school students. It’s a vital step toward overall health for our teens.

more:JCPS families: Here’s the exact time your child’s school could start next year

Matthew Kinney, MD is a pediatrician and Medical Director of the Norton Children’s Medical Group- Novak Center affiliated with the University of Louisville School of Medicine and is the father of a JCPS elementary student with another set to begin kindergarten in the fall. Katy Hopkins, PhD is a child and adolescent psychologist and Medical Director of Pediatric Integrated Behavioral Health with Norton Children’s Medical Group affiliated with the University of Louisville School of Medicine and is the parent of a two JCPS elementary and middle school students.

This article originally appeared on the Louisville Courier Journal: Why adjusting to later school start times is better adolescent health