School start times: Are teens too sleepy to enjoy learning?

One expert calls moving school start times a "moral issue" that will make students safer
By: | February 6, 2020
The importance of teen sleep and school start times is highlighted by a survey of more than 21,000 high school students that found the most common emotion they reported feeling at school was "tired." (gettyimages.com: tomazl)In a survey of more than 21,000 high school students, the most common emotion they reported feeling at school was "tired." (gettyimages.com: tomazl)

Early school start times and lack of teen sleep may be one reason that researchers are finding students have negative attitudes towards school.

Nearly three-quarters of high school students have negative feelings about school, according to a nationwide survey by researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center.

More than 21,000 high school students were asked how often they felt 10 emotions: happy, proud, cheerful, joyful, lively, sad, mad, miserable, afraid, scared, stressed and bored. The most common emotions students reported was tired, followed by stressed, bored, calm, and happy, according to Yale News. 

“It is possible that being tired is making school more taxing, so that it is more difficult for students to show curiosity and interest,” co-author and research scientist Zorana Ivcevic, told Yale News. “It is like having an extra weight to carry.”


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At this year’s Future of Education Technology Conference®, bestselling author Daniel Pink said that starting high school later so students can get more sleep is a “moral issue” that has pedagogical as well as logistical ramifications for district administrators.

Traditional, early start times contribute to teen depression, lower academic performance, higher risk of unhealthy behaviors and weight gain, Pink said in his keynote speech.

As for the school schedule, a student’s ability to learn is elevated earlier in the day, dips around the middle of the day, and rebounds later in the afternoon and evening.

“Kids who have math in the morning do better,” said Pink, whose latest book, When, examines the impact of the time of the day on decisions and performance. “And the downdraft of having the wrong schedule hits lower-income and more vulnerable kids harder, and the updraft of fixing it helps them even more.”


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The first statewide policy requiring later high school and middle school start times became law in California earlier this year.

Middle schools can start no earlier than 8 a.m.; high schools must wait until 8:30 a.m. to open. The changes must be in place by 2022, according to the new law.

At FETC, Pink also said that students—and teachers—perform better when they can move around and take breaks during the day. One study found that students who didn’t take a break before beginning a test performed at the same level as a student who’d missed two weeks of school and whose parents had less education.

The upshot is that schools should not only maintain recess but try to expand it. Recess improves students’ executive functioning, resilience, emotional self-control and positive classroom behavior, Pink said.

Beyond start times and teen sleep

Another contributor to students’ negative attitudes is the lack of teachers of color.

According to a study, children of color represent about a third of the student population in Pennsylvania, but the state’s teaching workforce is the least diverse in the nation, PA Post reported.

Less than 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are people of color, while 55 percent of the state’s public schools and 38 percent of all school districts employed only white teachers in 2016-17, according to PA Post. 


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