The outcome of Senate Bill 328 (SB 328), currently under debate in California legislation, weighs heavy on the minds of lawmakers, teachers, parents, students, and school administrators as the state’s students prepare to return to school this fall.
In many California public middle and high schools, the first class period begins around 730am. However, if SB 328 passes, the state would prohibit its public middle and high schools from starting classes before 830am.
California Senate Democrat Anthony Portantino (La Cañada Flintridge), sponsor of the bill, has pressed for the statewide change in order to help the state’s teenaged student population thwart a problem common among US adolescents: sleep deprivation.
“If we want healthy kids and healthy schools, we should have a healthy start time based on science, biology and results,” Portantino has stated previously regarding the bill. Portantino points to scientific evidence that shows as many as two thirds of teenagers suffer from sleep deprivation.
The problem of early bell times and night-owl teens
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens (ages 14 to 17) get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night.
Tweens may begin to experience puberty much earlier; however, the NSF recommends that kids ages 10 to 13 (“tweens”) get even more sleep, from between 9 and 11 hours every night.
Sleep changes among teens are related to shifts in their circadian rhythms at the onset of puberty.
Most tweens and teens experience what is considered delayed sleep phase. This is the result of swift and complex changes to the adolescent brain which are associated with its final development. These kids are often described, in fact, as “night owls” for this reason.
This means their rhythms undergo a slight biological reset that makes it more natural for them to abide a later schedule.
Most younger children and adults may more naturally feel sleepy between 9 and 10pm. However, teens are far less likely to feel sleepy until at least 11pm. For some, the rhythms shift to as late as 1am.
These changes are hormonally related and have little to do with poor self management.
If parents forced 15-year-old kids to go to bed at 10pm, those kids would simply remain awake in bed until their own rhythms kicked in.
While this shift to a later bedtime is biologically normal, it doesn’t neatly correspond with early school start times.
Therein lies the problem. For a couple of decades now, research has shown that earlier bell times (before 8am) may be convenient for parents and the working world, but they are quite disruptive to the circadian rhythms of teens.
Why can’t teens just clean up their bedtime behavior?
Even if teens practice the most stellar sleep hygiene, such as putting away devices, going to bed at the same time every night, and avoiding caffeine products before bedtime, early bell times still deny them a fair opportunity to get adequate sleep if their morning start time is 730am.
Consider the circumstances. A teen may go to bed at 11pm, but if they must be in class by 730am the next morning, they have zero opportunity to achieve a full 8 hours of sleep… not if they want to shower, dress, and eat breakfast first, and still have time to get themselves to school.
In fact, even the most ready-to-go teen in the morning is still going to need at least an hour to accomplish their morning routine. That means they’ll be rising at 630am, after going to bed at 11pm the night before.
What’s the clock time on that night of sleep? 7.5 hours (or less, depending on the teen). Or, not enough.
What does the science say?
Much of the debate over later school times rests on differing opinions about why teens tend to fall asleep later and struggle to get up early in the morning. Is it because “teens will be teens,” or are they truly victims of hormones? Is good sleep hygiene enough to fix the problem?
After all, changing to later bell times means an overhaul of more than just the school schedule. It includes shifts to school-wide transportation planning, before- and after-school programming, and childcare issues for working parents, among other concerns.
Research seems to show incontrovertible proof that later school start times help to relieve problems with sleep deprivation among teens. A study nearly two decades ago from internationally recognized pediatric sleep clinician Mary Carskadon found that “Early start time was associated with significant sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness… Psychosocial influences and changes in bioregulatory systems controlling sleep may limit teenagers’ capacities to make adequate adjustments to an early school schedule.”
Yet Sleep Review reported just last week that only half of parents support later bell times, with the remaining half highly skeptical of the research. High among the theories negating the value of a later start time is the assumption that doing so will just lead to a later bedtime and won’t actually fix the problem at hand.
The ASAA’s Chief Science Officer, sleep researcher and clinician Carl Stepnowsky, points to the study, “Delayed School Start Times and Adolescent Sleep: A Systematic Review of the Experimental Evidence” (Sleep Medicine Review, 2016: Minges & Redeker), to suggest this assumption lacks evidence.
Stepnowsky says that “while methods of scientific studies can always be improved, it seems that the take-away from this systematic review is that there appears to be a dose-response relationship with delayed school start times and increased sleep duration.”
(Dose-response relationship is a term used in scientific inquiry to suggest “changes in the prevalence or incidence of a given effect associated with changes in the level of a possible cause,” according to the Glossary of Environmental Statistics.)
From the Minges & Redeker paper, under the Discussion section:
“The number of minutes school was delayed ranged from 25 to 60 min, and correspondingly, students increased their total sleep time from 25 to 77 min, suggesting a clinically meaningful dose-response relationship. Importantly, among the studies that examined bedtimes and wake times, authors found delays only in wake times while bedtimes had either no change or were earlier. This provides evidence countering the hypothesis that students will simply stay awake later if school start time is delayed, and verifies the developmental shift in circadian timing that favors phase delay during later childhood.”
Stepnowsky continues, “This would appear to counter the often-made argument that later start times would result in later bedtimes, negating any possibility of increased duration, which is ultimately the goal.”
Sleep deprivation, sleep debt, and teens
Sleep deprivation is the outcome of sleep restriction. When people of all ages are sleep deprived, it begins to show in their mental and physical health. This is just as true for teens as for anyone else.
If you continue to add up weeks and months of accumulated lost sleep during the school year, you will eventually find that these teens are carrying a heavy load of sleep debt.
Sleep debt isn’t like a loan from the bank: one can’t just sleep in on the weekends to correct this imbalance… not without seriously disrupting one’s circadian rhythms in the process. Nor is lost sleep so easily replaced, hour to hour.
In fact, an early adulthood based on a lifestyle that regularly deprives one of sleep will eventually lead to a variety of health problems throughout one’s life. This is the reason why the American Medical Association has backed the Start School Later campaign nationwide.
Why sleep matters for teens
- Inadequate sleep for this age group has been linked to poorer academic and athletic performance.
- Sleep-deprived teens are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to become injured during school-sponsored sports contests.
- Other health issues may emerge: Adolescents who don’t get adequate sleep are more likely to develop health problems like obesity, hypertension, diabetes and depressive disorders.
- They may also face increases in high-risk behaviors like drug use, drowsy driving, sexual activity, even criminal mischief.
All eyes are on California
If SB 328 passes, it will give California the distinction of being the first state in the union to prohibit early bell times for middle and high school students in the public school system. Over the last two decades, individual dozens of towns and cities across the US have been making the change to later school start times. SB 328 would make it a state-level mandate.
Currently, the state’s public schools can choose their own start times, with 20 percent of middle and high schools already starting at 830am. But that means 80 percent are starting earlier than recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The challenges with enacting a widespread overhaul of the state public school system are considerable. Family childcare concerns, district-wide busing reorganization, the availability of after-school jobs, and sports participation are significant hurdles to making later start times work.
But Portantino’s position favors the public health and safety of California teens over the inconvenience.
Just last week, the senator told the Santa Clarita Valley Signal: “Schools can’t use ceiling tiles with asbestos because we know it causes cancer. They can’t put lead paint on the walls because we know it causes brain damage. And we shouldn’t let them start school so early when we know it leaves our children sleep-deprived.”
Learn more about SB 328 by visiting the Start School Later/Healthy Hours page (California).