Schools should give teenagers a fresh start

Brian Jones
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Thank goodness for scientists. They’re willing to spend hours peering into microscopes or crunching numbers with a calculator in order to arrive at conclusions the rest of us might declare are obvious, but have no proof for.

September is almost here. Schools reopen next week. Most people’s back-to-school buying binge has been accomplished, and thousands of youngsters are wondering how two summer months could have passed so fast — a lesson that time is indeed relative rather than absolute when viewed from an individual perspective.

And thousands of parents of teens will once again face the task of getting young scholars out of bed and out the door on time.

If you’ve long held a suspicion that the school day begins too early for teenagers’ own good — but had no evidence and thus lost every argument with any educrat you mentioned it to — there is now bona fide scientific proof to bolster your claim.

The September issue of Scientific American magazine contains an article headlined “Sleeping through high school,” with the subheading, “The later classes start, the more academic performance improves.”

Starting classes at 8:28 a.m. might have made sense years ago when schools served a surrounding neighbourhood, and kids could walk or cycle to school in 10 or 15 minutes. But these days, with regional schools and bus commutes, many students have to get up at 6:30 a.m. to get to school on time.

Parents have long known this is a preposterous, even cruel, schedule to force on teenagers. Scientists are finally catching up to this parental knowledge.

According to the Scientific American article, “In the past three years … scientific studies have piled up, and they all lead to the same conclusion: a later start time improves learning. And the later the start, the better.”

The article goes on: “Biological research shows that circadian rhythms shift during the teen years, pushing boys and girls to stay up later at night and sleep later into the morning. The phase shift, driven by a change in melatonin in the brain, begins around age 13, gets stronger by ages 15 and 16, and peaks at ages 17, 18 or 19.”

Anecdotal evidence for this is plentiful. Every parent with a kid in hockey will have noticed that, at age eight or 10, he or she will bound out of bed at 6 a.m. to go to practice, but at age 13 or 15 is much less eager.

American schools are apparently even more brutal about early starts than are Canadian schools. I’ve long thought 8:30 a.m. was at least a half-hour too early to start the school day, but according to Scientific American, many U.S. schools start classes at 7:30 a.m. or 7:45 a.m.

An educational researcher at the University of Minnesota studied 9,000 students in three U.S. states. She found that when classes started 45 minutes to one hour later, average grades went up.

“The key is allowing teens to get at least eight hours of sleep, preferably nine,” states the Scientific American article. “In Europe, it is rare for high school to start before 9 a.m.”

Researchers also anticipated objections to later school start times, and addressed those issues.

“Studies also show that common arguments against later start times ring hollow. In hundreds of districts that have made the change, students do not have a harder time fitting in after-school activities such as sports or in keeping part-time jobs.”

Of course, the findings of scientists won’t necessarily be enough to convince principals and schools district administrators that change is needed. Parents will have to push for it, and tell them to wake up, as it were.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at and can be found on Facebook.

Organizations: University of Minnesota, The Telegram

Geographic location: U.S., Europe

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Recent comments

  • Harve
    September 01, 2014 - 14:42

    This makes absolute sense!! Most of us parents of teenage students didn't need a scientific study to know this. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic education system is unlikely to do anything about it.

  • Patricia
    August 29, 2014 - 21:56

    This has always made sense. Some argue that teenagers may have after school jobs, but they work/study/socialize on a later night basis anyway-so they need to sleep in.