It sounds like a child’s dream come true: starting school later may be more beneficial for kids than forcing them to embrace the early morning grind.
According to a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, delaying school start time by just 15 minutes could do wonders for adolescent mental health—and it all has to do with preventing sleep deprivation.
The epidemic of sleep deprivation in children
Sleep deprivation isn’t something solely reserved for adults working long hours; in 2014, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) noted that nearly two-thirds of 17-year-olds reported sleeping less than 7 hours a night, despite the fact that adolescents require 8 to 10 hours of sleep.
The problem has become so widespread, the AAP referred to sleep deprivation in children as a budding epidemic, one complicated by poverty, growing use of screen time, demanding after-school activities, and loose parental bedtime protocols.
The bottom line? Teens would rather cut back on sleep than drop out of a sport or club, and who wants to get some shut-eye when they can still be in bed, scrolling through social media feeds on a cell phone?
Starting school later to combat sleep deprivation
Social pressures and differing family practices may make regulating teen sleep difficult, but there does appear to be a way to help prevent sleep deprivation in children—starting school later.
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The 2017 Sleep Medicine study, which followed adolescents in Hong Kong, evaluated what a 15-minute delayed school start would do for a child’s wellbeing.
The report noted that Asian students were prime targets for such research, as evidence suggests this demographic is among the most sleep deprived.
The findings supported what researchers had expected.
Pushing back the school start time by 15 minutes was enough to improve:
- Prosocial behaviors
- Peer relationships
- Overall mental health
The findings were found to be directly related to a slight increase in children’s sleep habits.
In addition to the health improvements seen in a number of wellness sectors, emotional problems and behavioral issues decreased overall.
This isn’t the first time a recommendation to start school later has hit mainstream media. In 2015, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report recommending that schools start 30 minutes later than the norm—at approximately 8:30 a.m. The recommendation came with support from the AAP after medical professionals from all fields started looking into the state of sleep deprivation in children.
The American Psychological Association (APA) notes the average start time across the U.S. is 8:03 a.m.
In some states, 75 percent to 100 percent of schools start before 8:30, but giving children 30 more minutes could do more than just improve overall health.
The APA notes a later school start could:
- Improve attendance
- Decrease the need for disciplinary action
- Improve GPA
- Decrease student car accidents
- Increase college admission test scores
- Decrease the number of students sleeping in class
- Improve attention
- Increase/improve student-family interactions
- Improve state assessment scores
Why schools are reluctant to adjust start times is yet a mystery—it could be that 30 minutes was too much of a strain—but we now know that as little as 15 minutes could make a huge difference.
Why sleep deprivation in children is so bad
Sleep deprivation is bad for everyone, regardless of age, but there are important reasons why children, especially, need to be protected.
In 2016, collective research from the University of Colorado and University Hospital Zurich found that sleep deprivation in children was linked to structural changes in a child’s developing brain.
What’s more, lack of sleep in kids was also found to negatively impact areas of the brain used for attention, spatial reasoning, and planned movements.
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Those findings were supported in 2017, when a study led by a Harvard pediatrician found sleep-deprived 7-year-olds had behavioral problems and issues related to attention, working memory, reasoning, and problem solving.
However, learning problems are just the tip of the iceberg. The APA notes that sleep deprivation in children can lead to a higher risk of:
- Substance abuse
- Weakened immune system
- Sports-related injury
Overall, if children don’t get enough sleep, they can’t perform to their highest potential, and they can face a number of mental and physical health issues.
What can be done to help children sleep?
If your child’s school isn’t willing to adjust start times, or you don’t want to wait for such policies to take effect, there are ways to help kids get quality sleep even if they can’t always get the right quantity.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends:
- Teaching children and teens about healthy sleep habits
- Keeping a regular bedtime and routine
- Creating a cool, dark, quiet place for sleep
- Eliminating screen time a few hours before bed
- Avoiding caffeine later in the day
Also, as a parent or caregiver, be in touch with how your child is feeling at school and throughout the day. Is he or she complaining about being tired? Are they falling asleep in class? Have you noticed mood changes or a decrease in grades?
As adults, we often push the consequences of lack of sleep to the side; we have bills to pay and families to take care of, so not sleeping can become a part of life. Don’t let this mentality trickle down into your children.
Sleep is important. It helps do everything from process memories to help heal and repair the circulatory system.
Make sure children know not to skip out on those critical hours of slumber—help them understand that sleep is part and parcel of not only health and well-being but also quality of life.