Across the country, the new school year is in full swing, making many children (and their caregivers) very happy. And for teens in California, there’s one more reason to be happy — later school start times.
This year, California became the first state to implement later school start times for high schoolers, with the purpose of helping teens get more sleep.
And while the California law is the first of its kind nationwide, other states, including New York and New Jersey and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are considering similar measures. Some cities, like Seattle, implemented later start times years ago. A study showed that those teens who started school later slept more, got better grades and had less absences.
“Teens at two Seattle high schools got more sleep on school nights after start times were pushed later — a median increase of 34 minutes of sleep each night. This boosted the total amount of sleep on school nights for students from a median of six hours and 50 minutes, under the earlier start time, to seven hours and 24 minutes under the later start time,” according to the study published in the journal Science Advances.
Signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019, the California state law requires all high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and an 8 a.m. or later start for middle schools this school year.
So, how’s it going so far?
According to Carol Green, President of the California State PTA, the kids are alright.
“It might take some getting used to and this is a big year of transition for all of our students, but the great thing is that they will statistically be healthier and better ready to learn,” she added. “Also with all schools in California on a similar later start, after an adjustment period, I’m sure it will all be positive.”
Thirteen-year-old Robert Greenway told local CBS that he was enjoying his new routine before school. “Last school year, it was more like get up, rush, rush, rush. Like you’re tired,” he says. Robert’s mom, Christine, says, “They’re zombies in the morning and then it’s very stressful to try to get them up.”
“My son’s school starts at 8:45 am instead of 7:40 (last year), and we have noticed that the extra sleep has helped him tremendously,” says Wesley S Cable. “He has epilepsy, and if he doesn’t get enough sleep, he can have seizures. The later start time allows him to wake up later and get the 8-9 hours of sleep that he needs to prevent [those] seizures.”
Cable also told Sleepopolis that his son is less rushed in the morning and has more time for homework and test preparation. As a result, Cable’s son has started off this school year “with really good grades.” The only downside for the family so far is that the later school start time makes it a bit harder to make after school soccer practice since later school start times also mean later school dismissal times.
Amy Levy, whose daughter is in the 10th grade in a Los Angeles charter school said the extra sleep this year has been really helpful.
“Our family is loving the later start times for our kids’ schools, especially at the high school level,” says Alexandra Fung, a mom of four. “We’re finding that even though one of our teens still needs to be prodded out of bed, overall, it is a lot easier for both of them to get themselves up and ready to go than in years past. With sports, after-school activities, and homework, it is hard for them to get to bed early during the school week, so a later start time gives them a chance to get the hours of sleep they really need.”
Science Says Teens Need More Sleep
For years, studies have shown that teen sleep cycles are delayed by as much as 2 to 3 hours, leading them to naturally fall asleep later and wake up later. And when school is in session, it’s easy to see how an early school start time can mess with those natural rhythms. Add to that a growing concern over depression and teen stress and what has been called a mental health crisis for teens, the later school start times seem to be a needed part of the puzzle to help kids be healthy, according to many experts.
Lisa L. Lewis, author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen, tells Sleepopolis, “The circadian rhythm shift teens experience means they generally aren’t feeling sleepy until about 11 p.m., and yet they still should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep a night up until age 18. So, when schools start too early in the morning – as early as 7 a.m., in some cases – it can make it virtually impossible for them to be able to get the amount of sleep they need.”
Dr. Shelby Harris, Sleepopolis’ director of sleep health, agrees. “As teenagers become teenagers – even as early as 12 years old – their biology naturally shifts later,” she says. “They naturally start to go to bed later and wake up later – and a lot of schools in America start way too early…and at that point, when a teen is asked to wake up, their brain is actually completely asleep.”
Proponents of later school start times, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) among them, are pushing for later school start times that better align with teen’s natural sleep schedules to help teens face their growing stress levels.
“Too often we underestimate children’s need for sleep, as we tend to think of them as having more energy than us,” says Dr. David Culpepper, Clinical Director of LifeMD. “I see far too many children who show obvious signs of being underslept, as well as overstressed from having so much schoolwork. Since adequate sleep helps to reduce stress, this makes it all the more important. School should nurture, enrich and stimulate our children, not stress them out and exhaust them. Starting later in the morning could be a good start.”
Some Kinks Need to be Worked Out
While schools are addressing teens’ sleep needs, it doesn’t mean that things like extracurriculars or work schedules have also changed. So, the conflict poses challenges for some.
Levy noted that the logistics around extracurriculars have some parents and kids scratching their heads right now. “The late start has obviously pushed the day to end later, which may be a conflict for those students who travel across town for extracurricular activities,” says Levy.
Parents with different work schedules, transportation needs and family structures are still getting used to the new school times, Green added.
“As a mom of three—getting kids to three different schools at three different times is a challenge, but that doesn’t change with a start time,” Green said. “[whether this is easier or harder], probably easier for some families, more challenging for others, but we (California’s PTA) based our support on what is best for the students and later start times are best for students. Later start fits better with the teen brain development and with teens getting better sleep.”
But Bay Area high schooler Allison Dana told Teen Vogue, the change hasn’t been easy for her.
Dana herself has been struggling to make it to an after-school internship on time, and only days into the school year, she’s had to choose between volleyball teams due to conflicting practices.
Anita Hernandez, a high school counselor who has seen the change play out both at her job and with her own kids, told The Guardian that the law “didn’t really solve the problem [of sleep deprivation], because, for those parents who still have to be at work at eight o’clock, we still have to wake our kids up early,” she says, “given limited or non-existent bussing.”
Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.