Later school times better for parents too: study

First-ever look at the impact of starting school later shows that families benefit overall from having that extra time in the morning.

Chris Arnold 4 minute read January 6, 2022
illustration of powerless robotic man with windup key on his back, surreal concept. three quarters of teenagers in the United States are not getting an adequate amount of sleep. 

Three-quarters of teenagers in the United States are not getting an adequate amount of sleep. GETTY

Several studies have shown the positive effects that a later school start time can have on students, but that extra time in the morning can have a similar benefit to parents according to new research. 

A study from National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, is the first ever to look at parent’s sleep quality after changing school start times. High schools were set back 70 minutes from the standard time, while middle schools went back 50 minutes. 

National Jewish Health partnered with the Cherry Creek School District, just outside of Denver. 

“We know adolescents are sleep deprived,” Lisa Meltzer, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at National Jewish Health and lead author of the study said in a statement. “We know that early school start times are a major factor contributing to it, but kids don’t live in a vacuum; they live within a very complex family system. So, it was important to look at parents’ sleep and how this policy change impacted the entire family.”

The parents of middle and high schoolers did not adjust their bedtime, but they were able to stay in bed later into the morning thanks to the later start times. Some would stay just 10 extra minutes, while others would keep sleeping an additional 25 minutes, Meltzer said. Over a week, those 10 minutes per night can add up to nearly an extra hour of sleep. 

The percentage of parents who were having sufficient sleep (at least seven hours) increased for both middle and high school parents as well. Parents with children only in high school had a jump of 10 per cent, while middle school parents’ sleep quality increased six per cent. 

“Parents were really feeling the benefits of not having to wake up as early, drag their kids out of bed, and try and get them to school on time,” Meltzer said. “A lot of parents said that it not only helped their sleep, but also it helped make their morning routine easier, and I think those improvements to the way families function are really important as well.”

Kelly Osuna, a Spanish teacher with the Cherry Creek School District, and parent to two teenagers, participated in the study. She said the extra time in the morning gives her family time to eat breakfast together, and she has more energy at the end of the day. She is also able to sleep an hour later than she was previously.

Osuna has seen some differences in her students, as well.

“It used to be a constant struggle getting the students in my first class to come in ready to learn,” Osuna said. “They were constantly nodding off, and it was really hard for them to focus on what I was teaching. After start times were adjusted to later in the morning, I noticed a big difference in the mood that kids come to school in, and I think other districts would see that too, if they made the same switch.”

The researchers are aware there are a number of factors to consider when adjusting school start times, such as after school activities and bus routes. 

Meltzer says it can be worth the switch, however, since three quarters of teenagers in the United States are not getting an adequate amount of sleep. 

“We know that insufficient sleep is associated with several health problems, including obesity and high blood pressure, and is very strongly associated with mental health issues, including depression and anxiety,” Meltzer said. “It also impacts their ability to pay attention and learn in school, which is critical in order for kids to be successful.”

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached here.
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