Let school kids sleep a lit­tle later

The Straits Times - - HOME - Aaron Carroll

Many high school-age chil­dren across the United States now find them­selves wak­ing up much ear­lier than they’d pre­fer as they re­turn to school. They set their alarms, and their par­ents force them out of bed in the morn­ing, con­vinced this is a nec­es­sary part of youth and good prepa­ra­tion for the rest of their lives.

It’s not. It’s ar­bi­trary, forced on them against their na­ture, and a poor eco­nomic de­ci­sion as well.

The Na­tional Heart, Lung and Blood In­sti­tute rec­om­mends that teenagers get be­tween nine and 10 hours of sleep. Most in the US don’t. It’s not their fault.

My old­est child, Ja­cob, is in 10th grade. He spends a fair amount of time each evening do­ing home­work. Most nights he’s asleep by 10 or 10.30. His school bus picks him up at 6.40am. Nine hours of sleep is a pipe dream, let alone 10.

There’s an ar­gu­ment to be made for cut­ting back on his ac­tiv­i­ties or mak­ing him go to bed ear­lier. But it’s not the ac­tiv­i­ties that stop them from get­ting enough sleep – it’s the school start times. More than 90 per cent of high schools and over 80 per cent of mid­dle schools start be­fore 8.30am.

A sys­tem­atic re­view pub­lished a year ago ex­am­ined how school start de­lays af­fect stu­dents’ sleep and other out­comes. Six stud­ies showed that de­lay­ing the start of school from 25 to 60 min­utes cor­re­sponded with in­creased sleep time of 25 to 77 min­utes per week night. In other words, when stu­dents were al­lowed to sleep later in the morn­ing, they still went to bed at the same time, and got more sleep.

There are costs to push­ing back the start times of schools. Our lo­cal school sys­tem uses the same buses for ele­men­tary, mid­dle and high school. Not want­ing to start ele­men­tary school too early, it starts high school ear­lier to save money on trans­porta­tion. Other costs to de­lay­ing start times come af­ter school, when later school end times re­sult in later af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties. These can in­ter­fere with par­ents’ work sched­ules and run into evening hours, when it gets dark and ad­di­tional light­ing might be nec­es­sary.

A Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion pol­icy brief in­ves­ti­gated the trade-offs be­tween costs and ben­e­fits of push­ing back the start times of high school in 2011. It es­ti­mated that in­creased trans­porta­tion costs would most likely be US$150 (S$202) per stu­dent per year. More sleep has been shown to lead to higher aca­demic achieve­ment. They found that the added aca­demic ben­e­fit of later start times would be equiv­a­lent to about two ex­tra months of school­ing, which would add about US$17,500 to a stu­dent’s earn­ings over the course of a life­time. Thus, the ben­e­fits out­weighed the costs.

A re­cent anal­y­sis by the Rand Corp goes much fur­ther. It con­ducted analy­ses to de­ter­mine the eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tion of a uni­ver­sal shift of mid­dle and high school start times to 8.30am at the ear­li­est. It ex­am­ined each state in­di­vid­u­ally, be­cause mov­ing to 8.30 would be a big­ger change for some. It also looked at changes year by year to see how costs and ben­e­fits ac­crued over time. It looked at down­stream ef­fects, like car ac­ci­dents. And it con­sid­ered mul­ti­plier ef­fects, as changes to the lives of stu­dents might af­fect others over time.

The study found that de­lay­ing school start times to 8.30 or later would con­trib­ute US$83 bil­lion to the econ­omy within a decade. The gains were seen through de­creased car crash mor­tal­ity and in­creased stu­dent life­time earn­ings.

Since it would take at least a year for stu­dents af­fected by changes in start times to en­ter the labour mar­ket, there would be no gains in the first year. Costs, how­ever, would ac­crue im­me­di­ately. These in­cluded about US$150 per stu­dent per year in trans­port costs and US$110,000 per school costs in in­fra­struc­ture up­grades. Even so, by the sec­ond year, the ben­e­fits out­weighed the costs. By 10 years, the ben­e­fits were al­most dou­ble the costs; by 15 years, they were al­most triple.

But even in a model where the per-stu­dent, per-year cost was raised to US$500, which would com­pen­sate par­ents for de­lays, and where the per-school cost was in­creased to US$330,000, the eco­nomic ben­e­fits to so­ci­ety would still out­weigh costs in the long run.

Also, it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that these ben­e­fits may be un­der­es­ti­mated. The study mod­elled only out­comes for which there was em­pir­i­cal data from sleep du­ra­tion, such as car crashes and aca­demic per­for­mance. It did not model other real, but quan­tifi­ably un­known, ben­e­fits, like im­prove­ments in rates of de­pres­sion, sui­cide and obe­sity, or the over­all ef­fects on health.

Some schools are be­gin­ning to take this se­ri­ously, but not enough.

When it comes to start times, the grow­ing ev­i­dence shows that forc­ing ado­les­cents to get up so early isn’t just a bad health de­ci­sion; it’s a bad eco­nomic one too.

More sleep has been shown to lead to higher aca­demic achieve­ment. They found that the added aca­demic ben­e­fit of later start times would be equiv­a­lent to about two ex­tra months of school­ing... Thus, the ben­e­fits out­weighed the costs.

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