It was back to school for my kids this week. A later start than most schools, but now that it’s after Labor Day, every kid old enough to be in school is back in school.

This year is a bit different, though. My fifth grader, now in a new school building, has to be out of the house a whole hour earlier to catch a bus. The school’s start time is 45 minutes earlier, as well.

At 10, she really doesn’t have a problem getting up so early. I’m expecting it to be a little rough around the edges as she makes the adjustment from getting up at 7:30 to needing to be at her bus stop at the same time, but she’ll manage.

She’s still lucky. As she gets older, that start time is going to get earlier and earlier. If she’s taking the bus when she gets to high school, she will wait for the bus in the dark to get to first period by 7:30 a.m. It’s one thing to get out of bed at 7:30 and another thing entirely to be in a classroom, ready to begin a day of classroom learning at 7:30.

As most readers are probably already aware, school starting times have recently become the source of some controversy as scientists continue to produce research results that demonstrate pretty clearly that students should be starting class much later.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatricians issued a report that found sleep deprivation in children was a significant public health issue, noting that moving school start times later in the day not only increased student performance but reduced the rate of teen car accidents.

That finding was echoed a year later by the Center for Disease Control. Anne Wheaton, a lead author of the CDC report was quoted in a Vox story on the report:

“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance. Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

Some school districts are already considering serious proposals to push those start times back. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a law this summer that compels the state to study pushing back school start times. That was spurred by the CDC’s call to have no school classes start earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In another recent study just published in the journal Learning, Media, and Technology, researchers suggested the best time for 16-year-olds to begin class was 10:30 a.m. For 18-year-olds, the optimal start time was as late as 11.

The research is pretty convincing. Student performance increases dramatically when kids get up later. They get better grades and do better on tests. Studies have also found that the benefits for students who don’t perform well are even better, suggesting that proper sleep has a lot more to do with learning than we might have thought.

The obstacles to moving start times are many – from high school athletic programs that rely on afternoon practice and game schedules to bus companies that likely prefer getting kids to school earlier. But the benefits should outweigh any of those concerns, particularly when later start times are a practically cost-free way to enhance student performance.

Let’s let our kids sleep a little later. Their grades may depend on it.

— Pete Mazzaccaro

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