A Matter of Time: Adolescent Sleep and School Times

Jan. 27, 2017

Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Start School Later, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours and to ensuring school start times compatible with health, safety, education, and equity. An award-winning author of numerous popular health and medical books including The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health, The Women’s Concise Guide to Emotional Well-Being, Alternative Medicine for Dummies, and Nameless Diseases and former associate editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), she has written extensively on a wide range of health and medical issues in The Harvard Health Letter, JAMA, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, Weight Watchers Magazine, and Business Week, among others. Terra is a graduate of Yale College and a former Searle Fellow at the University of Chicago, where she earned a doctorate in the history of science and medicine. She has been awarded science-writing fellowships by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

Adolescents are a sleep-deprived group, with an estimated 87% of high schoolers getting insufficient sleep on school nights and 40% reporting six or fewer hours. This “teen sleep crisis” is believed to have many causes, including a delay in the circadian rhythm at puberty coupled with school start times requiring early awakening. A compelling body of research shows that these latter two factors account for a significant portion of chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents; in fact, of all the contributing factors proposed, only early school start times have been proven to play a major, and remediable, role. These findings have led to a growing number of calls from health, education, and civic leaders for later school start times, including recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that middle and high schools start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Nonetheless, an estimated 85% of U.S. middle and high schools still start class at times out-of-sync with typical adolescent circadian patterns; many start in the 7 a.m. hour or even earlier, with students in some districts required to be at bus stops before 5:30 a.m. After briefly reviewing the history of school bell time changes and recent research about the impact of early bell times on health, safety, school performance, equity, and economics, this talk considers perceived and real obstacles to change, as well as recent lessons from communities that have successfully returned to more developmentally appropriate school hours.