Kids, sleep and school

Kids, sleep and school

April 2nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

Youngsters standing at school bus stops before 6 a.m. and sitting in class before 7:30 a.m. are common sights in Hamilton County and in other school districts in the region and across the country. That early-to-rise and early-to-learn schedule, though, is based more on convenience and economics than sound educational or health principles. If school officials don't know that, a series of talks here last week by Mary Carskadon, a noted biobehaviorial scientist and sleep expert, should remind them of the important role sleep plays in youngsters' lives, especially in the teen years.

Most educators probably do know that most adolescents and teens need more sleep than they get. It's just that they have little control over starting times and bus routes that play a major role in determining when a school day begins and when it ends. The result is that lots of kids who should be asleep at 6 in the morning are standing at a bus stop at that time, or even earlier. That's certainly true in Hamilton County and other districts.

Most local high school and middle school students begin their academic day at 7:15 a.m. Some of those students re picked up between 5:45 and 5:55 a.m. That's early and sometimes requires a long time on the bus or a long wait at school before classes begin, but they have little choice. They bus that takes them to school usually has another or two other routes to run before the school day begins. That might make economic sense, but the timing makes it difficult for them to partake fully in the academic process.

Educators and health experts generally agree that adolescents and teens need more sleep -- 9 hours -- than they typically get -- 7 hours -- and that they naturally fall asleep later and get up later than younger kids. Still, many school systems require teens to start school early in the morning and set later times for elementary students.

The answer, then, is to change school start times and to adjust bus routes and times. That's easier said than done. Tight budgets make it necessary to operate buses economically. That often requires one driver to make three separate runs before classes commence. That can save money, but at a cost.

Carskadon says depriving teens of sleep can prompt a variety of educational, behavioral and development issues. She's got the research to prove it. The answer, then, is to rearrange school schedules to match the natural rhythms of youngsters' lives. That means shifting school start times so elementary kids, who do well early in the day, arrive first, and older kids, who do better in the late morning and afternoon, get there later. That's easier said than done, given monetary and transportation consideration.

Such change won't be easy or cheap, But if later start times allow older kids to get more sleep and that, in turn, leads to improved student academic performance and behavior, the investment of time and money will be worthwhile.