The sun is barely up at 7 a.m., yet many students across the country are already at school working at their desks before most adults have even started their day. When the body sleeps, the brain is hard at work, so as educational administrators continue to search for ways to improve student performance, school start times need to be considered.
In a recent study, "Early to Rise? The Effects of Daily Start Times on Academic Performance," Finley Edwards, an assistant professor of economics at Colby College, found a significant increase in both math and reading test scores for middle school students when the schools' starting times were delayed by one hour. Edwards conducted the study in Wake County, North Carolina, with data obtained for the years 1999 through 2006. He chose this district because of its varied school hours within the district, as well as its changing start times from year to year. Edwards credited the increase in test scores on standardized tests to later school start times, leading to a better night's sleep. Similar studies are currently being done in states across the country, and administrators are making adjustments to school schedules.
For centuries, children have been advised to get a good night’s sleep before school; however, all students do not necessarily need later start times. Polls show that most elementary school students get a substantial amount of sleep. It's the typical adolescent, however, who gets less and less sleep from preadolescence through 12th grade. A U.S. poll conducted in 2006 by the National Sleep Foundation found that students in grade six typically get 8.4 hours of sleep on weekdays, while 12th-graders reported getting only 6.9 hours of sleep a night. The study found that the reduction in the amount of sleep comes from the increase in social factors as well as physical hormonal changes, leading to a delay in the onset of sleep and resulting in less sleep per night.
Sleep and Memory
As pointed out in the article “Sleep On It,” published in the National Institutes of Health’s April 2013 monthly newsletter, when you sleep, your brain is still actively at work, consolidating and organizing memories that it encoded during your waking hours and then storing the information in your long-term memory for easier recall later. Sleep plays an essential role in the processing of knowledge and memory.
Advocating Later Hours
As the National Institutes of Health continues to research sleep, many schools across the country are adjusting their schedules to have middle and high school students start later. A nationally recognized nonprofit organization, Start School Later, has been advocating later school start hours in many states across the country, bringing public and state government attention to the importance of sleep.
Charlotte Kan has been an educator for more than 10 years. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in psychology from the University of Central Florida, a Masters of Science in instructional media from Wilkes University, and is certified in both K-6 Elementary Education, as well as ESOL.