Adolescence is a transformative time for students. Their physical, cognitive, and emotional states undergo rapid changes, and their circadian rhythm (the internal system to regulate sleep-wake cycles) experiences big shifts. This developmental stage can have a big impact on student wellbeing, and sleep becomes all the more important to ensure students’ healthy development.
Yet studies show that 60-70% of teenagers live with severe sleep deprivation, spurred by processes in adolescence that lead to staying awake later at night and waking later in the morning. In this delayed sleep phase, early school start times can mean adolescents experience sleep deficits that not only disrupt their concentration in class, but lower their mood, impact their ability to self-regulate, and can contribute to long-term health issues.
Delaying school start times has long been discussed in the academic space to cater to sleep-deprived students. Later starts could align with students’ natural sleep patterns and help them get the adequate rest they need, as well as perform better during the school day. Still, there are pros and cons to altering the school schedule, and such a radical move has to consider the broader consequences for students’ routines and growth.
So, should teenagers start school at 11am? Let’s take a look at both sides of the debate below.
The benefits of changing the school schedule to start later
There are some clear benefits that could come from allowing teenagers to sleep longer in the mornings and start their classes later:
1. Improved productivity
11am school starts (as opposed to the more common 9am start) have huge potential to boost students’ cognitive abilities, attention spans, and memory retention. All of these benefits fuel greater productivity and academic performance. By aligning school schedules with students’ biological clocks, students can problem solve and tap into their creativity more easily.
Teenagers who are well rested can absorb and store new information more efficiently, and engage more deeply with study materials and classroom discussions. Unsurprisingly, research highlights that students who have longer sleep durations achieve higher scores in exams.
It’s also worth mentioning that students with optimal sleep schedules are less likely to be absent from school or arrive late. Healthy sleep patterns enable students to wake more comfortably, commit to routines, and stay alert throughout the day. Not only are they therefore more productive, they are more present in their learning journeys.
2. More efficient teaching
A later school start time also has advantages for teachers and schools as a whole. Teenagers who do not get enough sleep are more prone to being irritable, and are more likely to respond with resistance to difficult tasks or requests. School schedules that complement students’ circadian rhythms cultivate a calmer, more focused education atmosphere, with fewer classroom disruptions from tired, overwrought students.
An 11am school start can produce students who are attentive and eager to participate. You’ll subsequently be able to cover material more efficiently, and foster more diverse, interesting classroom discussion. Meanwhile, students can grasp complex concepts with ease and enjoy compelling activities.
When teachers interact with students who have sufficient sleep, classroom dynamics are more positive and there’s less time wasted on classroom management – resulting in more successful teaching and learning outcomes.
3. Better emotional wellbeing and physical health
Teenage years are marked by significant emotional and physical changes. Insufficient sleep is closely linked to stress, anxiety, and mood disturbances in adolescents, plus an increase in the risk of injury, obesity, and screen time.
A later start time at school could provide students with longer sleep cycles and more opportunities for restorative sleep. The result is students who have better emotional resilience – they can manage stress, control mood swings, and have energy to exercise and be active over the course of the school day. They will also be less likely to rely on caffeine and sugar to keep them alert and focused, and able to make more healthy choices around breaks and lunchtime.
Better emotional and physical wellbeing for students helps them both to progress at school, and also establish healthy habits to take into adulthood.
The disadvantages of changing the school schedule to start later
Despite these benefits, there are some disadvantages to switching up the school day. Let’s take a look:
1. Impact on school and family logistics
Students, families, and teachers tend to rely on the 9am start time to organise their day. It allows them to commute together and synchronise activities. So, changing the start time could present logistical challenges, impacting what time students arrive at school and when classes start.
From the perspective of schools in particular, a new start time may mean coordinating different bus schedules, class rotations, and teacher availability. Such logistics are complicated, and considering that many schools already have limited resources and budgets, may simply not be feasible. Moreover, the changes could affect the quality of education provided, and so while students may be more rested, the teaching they receive could be compromised.
2. Less time for extracurricular activities
Extracurricular activities are linked to greater academic success, social development, leadership skills, and time management for adolescents. Having the school day start at 11am would mean that students finish later in the day and may not have time to complete extracurricular activities.
Whether sports, arts or clubs, extracurricular practices provide a well-rounded education experience. They influence students’ physical fitness, creative expression, and encourage teamwork. If access to these activities is limited, students may have fewer moments to explore their potential outside of the academic sphere.
3. Less time with siblings and friends after school
After-school hours are valuable for adolescents’ familial bonds and social connections – in fact, this time with others has been proven to increase adolescents’ happiness. For the majority of students and parents, the late afternoon is when adolescents interact with their siblings and friends.
Adjusting the start time for schools could curtail this time for connection, meaning students don’t share their stories from the day, their support, and their activities with the people they are closest to. A later start and finish could reduce the window to play, talk, and be with others, and reduce the number of meaningful conversations that adolescents have outside of the classroom. Maintaining the existing schedule, however, allows families to preserve these moments that fuel emotional growth and stronger interpersonal relationships.
The reasons to introduce an 11am school day start are just as persuasive as the counterarguments. While the jury is out on whether to implement the change fully, the conversation will continue and more institutions will experiment with ways to optimise learning for all students.
Curious to learn more about the current questions facing education? Read more in our big debate series.
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