Let school kids sleep a little later

Many high school-age children across the United States now find themselves waking up much earlier than they'd prefer as they return to school. They set their alarms, and their parents force them out of bed in the morning, convinced this is a necessary part of youth and good preparation for the rest of their lives.

It's not. It's arbitrary, forced on them against their nature, and a poor economic decision as well.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends that teenagers get between nine and 10 hours of sleep. Most in the US don't. It's not their fault.

My oldest child, Jacob, is in 10th grade. He spends a fair amount of time each evening doing homework. Most nights he's asleep by 10 or 10.30. His school bus picks him up at 6.40am. Nine hours of sleep is a pipe dream, let alone 10.

There's an argument to be made for cutting back on his activities or making him go to bed earlier. But it's not the activities that stop them from getting enough sleep - it's the school start times. More than 90 per cent of high schools and over 80 per cent of middle schools start before 8.30am.

A systematic review published a year ago examined how school start delays affect students' sleep and other outcomes. Six studies showed that delaying the start of school from 25 to 60 minutes corresponded with increased sleep time of 25 to 77 minutes per week night. In other words, when students were allowed to sleep later in the morning, they still went to bed at the same time, and got more sleep.

More sleep has been shown to lead to higher academic achievement. They found that the added academic benefit of later start times would be equivalent to about two extra months of schooling... Thus, the benefits outweighed the costs.

There are costs to pushing back the start times of schools. Our local school system uses the same buses for elementary, middle and high school. Not wanting to start elementary school too early, it starts high school earlier to save money on transportation. Other costs to delaying start times come after school, when later school end times result in later after-school activities. These can interfere with parents' work schedules and run into evening hours, when it gets dark and additional lighting might be necessary.

A Brookings Institution policy brief investigated the trade-offs between costs and benefits of pushing back the start times of high school in 2011. It estimated that increased transportation costs would most likely be US$150 (S$202) per student per year. More sleep has been shown to lead to higher academic achievement. They found that the added academic benefit of later start times would be equivalent to about two extra months of schooling, which would add about US$17,500 to a student's earnings over the course of a lifetime. Thus, the benefits outweighed the costs.

A recent analysis by the Rand Corp goes much further. It conducted analyses to determine the economic implication of a universal shift of middle and high school start times to 8.30am at the earliest. It examined each state individually, because moving to 8.30 would be a bigger change for some. It also looked at changes year by year to see how costs and benefits accrued over time. It looked at downstream effects, like car accidents. And it considered multiplier effects, as changes to the lives of students might affect others over time.

The study found that delaying school start times to 8.30 or later would contribute US$83 billion to the economy within a decade. The gains were seen through decreased car crash mortality and increased student lifetime earnings.

Since it would take at least a year for students affected by changes in start times to enter the labour market, there would be no gains in the first year. Costs, however, would accrue immediately. These included about US$150 per student per year in transport costs and US$110,000 per school costs in infrastructure upgrades. Even so, by the second year, the benefits outweighed the costs. By 10 years, the benefits were almost double the costs; by 15 years, they were almost triple.

But even in a model where the per-student, per-year cost was raised to US$500, which would compensate parents for delays, and where the per-school cost was increased to US$330,000, the economic benefits to society would still outweigh costs in the long run.

Also, it's important to understand that these benefits may be underestimated. The study modelled only outcomes for which there was empirical data from sleep duration, such as car crashes and academic performance. It did not model other real, but quantifiably unknown, benefits, like improvements in rates of depression, suicide and obesity, or the overall effects on health.

Some schools are beginning to take this seriously, but not enough.

When it comes to start times, the growing evidence shows that forcing adolescents to get up so early isn't just a bad health decision; it's a bad economic one too.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Let school kids sleep a little later'. Subscribe