Can Children Benefit from Later School Start Times?

The school day seems to start much earlier than most work days. This early start time allows parents to wake with their children and prepare them for the school day before they have to be to work. However, according to sleep research, early school start times have a negative impact on childhood sleep patterns and overall functioning. It is well known that sleep is imperative to healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical functioning. Academic performance is one area that is significantly impacted by sleep.

For Chinese children, academic performance and success are paramount to many other pursuits and children in China tend to spend more waking hours on homework than their American peers. They also get about an hour less of sleep each night. This deficit in optimal sleep duration can have far-reaching consequences.

In order to determine how even slight delays in school start time can benefit children via longer sleep durations, Shenghui Li of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine in China conducted a series of studies to see how moderate delay times impacted sleep and school functioning in a sample of elementary-aged Chinese children. The first experiment measured behavior, sleep duration, academic performance, and overall emotional well-being after school start time was delayed by 30 minutes. The second experiment measured the same factors after delaying school start by a full 60 minutes.

Prior to the delays, daytime drowsiness was reported by 64% of the children and was linked to inattention, lack of motivation, and poor academic performance. Short sleep duration, which was present in nearly 40% of the children and classified as less than 10 hours of sleep per night, was only associated with academic performance. After the first delay of 30 minutes, children slept an average of 15 minutes more per night and had nearly 8% less daytime drowsiness. After the additional delay of another 30 minutes, average sleep duration increased by 22 minutes.

Li said, “The effectiveness of delaying school staring time emphasized the benefits of optimal school schedule regulation to children’s sleep health.” However, even though the second delay showed increased benefits to the children, they were not dramatic, suggesting that further delays or interventions designed to increase sleep duration are necessary.

Li, S., Arguelles, L., Jiang, F., Chen, W., Jin, X., et al. (2013). Sleep, school performance, and a school-based intervention among school-aged children: A sleep series study in China. PLoS ONE 8(7): e67928. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067928

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  • casey

    July 20th, 2013 at 1:35 AM

    the case is not as much about delaying school start times as it is about kids getting enough sleep.sleep early and wake up early is what was taught to several of us in childhood and that really works!

  • Kathleen

    August 9th, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    I know this is exceptionally difficult for people to understand but my daughter absolutely will not fall asleep early enough to get a proper amount of sleep for a school day. And I know you’re just thinking I’m lazy or an undisciplined parent. But not all children are typical and my atypical daughter fights me about every single thing we do every single day. And I do mean every single thing. She fights about eating, then fights about what she eats, then about where to eat, which seat she’ll sit on, which and how many toys can join her (even though she receives the same answer every day: 0), then how much she will eat, then about cleaning off her plate and setting it in the sink… Brushing hair is usually a 10 minute activity but somedays can take 45 minutes. I could go on and on and on but to be honest I’m too tired. Considering that she uded to stay up until 5am on a regular basis in her first three years of life I am just grateful that she is asleep by 10pm 99% of the time now that she is in school.

  • clyde

    July 20th, 2013 at 4:58 AM

    Already where I lived the district has staggered start times, earlier for the elementary schools, a little later for midle, and then even later for high school kids.

    I know that there are benefits, obviously that has been studied. But I also know that there have been some complaints that this puts a hardship on parents, having different schedules for sifferent kids and makes getting to work and picking up a logistical nightmare especially for families where both parents work.

  • Reed

    July 22nd, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    There are probably people reading this who are thinking that they had to suck it up and get started early and that kids today should have to do the same. I on the other hand see this as something that needs to be pursued. If we are sure that later start times for one could make some impressive improvements in student performance then why not give it a try? You could do some small targeted programs and look over the course of even a few months and if the numbers are there and the changes are there, then we owe it to our children and our future to at least give this a try. We are already far below other nations in academic performance. Could this be the answer that we have been looking for? We won’t know until we try.

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