Starting School Later: Hater or Advocator?

Guess what? National Geographic emailed and asked if I
wanted to join their team as an explorer!
Just kidding about that last part. But they really did email and
asked what my thoughts are on the possibility of legislation being passed for schools
to start later in the day. Have you heard the buzz about this issue? Basically,
school-age kids aren’t getting the amount of sleep they need, which creates a
whole slew of problems for them. There’s been a ton of research that supports
the benefits of secondary schools starting later in the day, like 8:30-9:00-ish,
yet very few (less than 1%) of school districts have actually made the switch.
If you had asked me during my first year of teaching how I
feel about school starting later in the day because students are sleepy, I
think I would have laughed out loud scoffingly, like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and said something
like, “Well maybe if the students went to
bed earlier
they wouldn’t be so tired!”
(I was cranky about 97% of the time during my first year.)
But now, with a few years under my belt, my answer is a
little different.
First, let me be clear: I am
a morning person.
Through and through. At sleepovers growing up, I was
always the kid who woke up before everyone else and either went
to town on my friend’s bookshelf or crept into the kitchen and chatted
awkwardly with the hostess’s parents. So, of all the things that are difficult
about the teaching life, I’ve never really minded the waking up early part. In
fact, I get to school about two hours early because I am way more productive in
the mornings than I am after school. If I ran the world and everyone were
exactly like me, schools would start at 6:15 so we could be out by 2:15.
But, luckily for you/everyone, I don’t run the world* and not
everyone is exactly like me. I teach at a Title I middle school, where many of
my students are at or below poverty level. Teaching has changed my life for about a kajillion reasons, but one of them is the way I handle kids falling asleep in my class. I don’t punish them anymore. Instead, I listen. “Hey, I noticed you were pretty sleepy
today,” I’ll ask them later, privately. “Everything okay?” Sometimes it’s just
a one-time thing—they just couldn’t fall asleep, or lost track of time watching
YouTube the night before. But more often than not, it’s due to one of the
following reasons:
  •  Some of
    my students don’t always have someone around to make sure they go to bed early.

    Sometimes it’s because the people who take care of them work night shifts or
    are elsewhere during the week. But even for the kids who do have someone making
    sure they go to bed at a certain time, kids having personal access to cell
    phones, TVs and video games makes it difficult for any parent to monitor how
    much sleep their child is getting.
  • Many of
    my students live an environment where it’s difficult for them to get to sleep
    or stay asleep.
     Some of them have
    family members who encourage them to stay awake or are too noisy, playing music
    or having guests over into the wee hours of the morning in small apartments
    where the rooms are close together and the walls are thin. Others may have noisy
    neighbors right next door, or live in a neighborhood where emergency sirens on
    their street are nearly a nightly thing. Also, I have way too many students who
    are responsible for the care of their younger siblings. I can’t tell you how
    many times I’ve had a student tell me that the dark circles under their eyes
    are because their little brother or sister had a stomach virus the night before. 
  • Some of
    my students are having trouble sleeping because of stuff they have to deal with
    during the day.
    Bullying, domestic violence, unstable family situations,
    abuse, neglect, hunger, homelessness. This is just a short list.
 I know that every teacher’s free time is precious, whether
they have a family or not. I know that having another hour taken away from our
evenings would be felt very keenly by all of us. But what if we didn’t have to
look at it that way? What if having better-rested kids would actually make our
jobs easier? What if starting later would cut down on failure rates,
absenteeism, and other things that are so widespread at schools like mine, and
are actually part of the reason that we have so much work outside of school
hours? So, while I’m not totally psyched at the idea of not being able to beat
rush hour traffic anymore, I am also aware that there’s more to this issue than me. Even though starting early might work for me,
it’s clearly not working for my students.
And I don’t get up and go to work
every day so that I can learn to
write an expository essay or so that I
can tell the difference between there,
they’re, and their. If they’re not getting enough sleep and there’s a way for us
to fix it, we owe it to them and their success to try. (See what I did there?)
For more information on this issue from people way smarter than
I am who don’t compare themselves to Disney villains, check out Sleepless in America, a TV special on
the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, November 30th at
8 PM Eastern time. And here’s a short clip about the education part of it for you to take a gander.
What’s your take on all this? Holler at me.

*I mean, really, it would fall apart in about twelve


  1. Lisa Jane Holtz

    How about the "old school" thought of building character by doing things that we would rather not do and making the most of it? By the way, I teach elementary school so I'm not in the trenches of middle or high school, but I am a parent of four adult daughters ages 28-19. Just a thought.

  2. Anonymous

    I'm a teacher at a Title I elementary school…we have a late start at 8:40…doesn't make much of a difference for us, the behaviors sleepyness, acting out, difficultly paying attention is still a huge factor and my school has kids with all the above things you've mentioned.(Except ours are younger and don't do the sleeping in class as much as rolling around on the floor, throwing chairs, flipping desks, destroying charts, throwing markers/pencils/crayons) Pretty much down to the letter I have students with all those things above and know of students with the other things I don't have specifically in my class. I feel for you though. I'm in year two special education at a Title I and I read through your blog and it keeps me happy that I'm not the only crazy one. Keep on blogging!

  3. Anonymous

    The research in this area is strong and our educational structures are outdated. Moving the start time of secondary schools to 8:30-9:30 a.m. is much healthier for students. Life is hard enough. We should move the school start time to make it easier for our kids. It's supposed to be about the kids, not adults, sports, jobs, and any other reason that has been used to keep us in this old-fashioned tradition.

  4. Anonymous

    I'm a middle school teacher also. Our start time is 8:00. I think that in theory, later start times make sense, but kids are always on the schedules of the parents, so they have to get up, ready, and out the door on the parent schedule, not just their own. If younger/older siblings have earlier start times, they might also have to get moving. I'm just not sure it would solve many problems, might just create new ones. ~ Pam Clark

  5. Anonymous

    From the research I have been reading, moving the start time one hour later isn't going to give us much bang for our buck. Kids' attention spans peak at something like 8 pm at night!

  6. Anonymous

    Even in schools that aren't title 1 and have so much poverty, kids are up late with sports, jobs, and homework. I teach AP kids and they generally put homework before sleep.

  7. Anonymous

    Here in Quebec, many schools do start between at 8:30-9AM, mainly because we have to stagger school bus schedules in the city. Honestly, I haven't noticed too much of a difference. Kids still fall asleep in class. They still have responsibilities that keep them up and they still stay up late playing games. To be fair, though, I've never worked at a school where we started earlier than 8.

  8. Floss

    I'm in Australia and (in my state at least) your 'later' starts are the norm here. When I was at school (90s-early 2000s) 9am was the start time, always. Now that I'm a teacher, many schools have moved to an earlier start – the 8.40-8.50am window is quite popular. But definitely no earlier than 8.30am. I just can't see an earlier start than that being beneficial for kids. Depending on the school, the day finishes between 3-4pm (4pm would be less common). Teachers are expected to be at school by 8.30am, anyone there before 8am would be 'unusual!'

  9. Anonymous

    I agree. Middle/high school kids need to start the day later. Let them sleep in and come to school more alert and ready. The research is out there.

  10. Breezyred

    From what I understand, these policies are usually created so that elementary-aged kids going into school earlier, and middle- and high school-aged kids going into school later. This is the opposite of how schools have traditionally run.

    This is not about building character; this is about meeting youth where they are at a biological level. Teenagers are programmed to stay up and wake up later, while younger kids are programmed to go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier too. This is not unique to a school with a high proportion of students who qualify for FRL, but the conditions you describe above definitely exacerbate the problem.

    I am out of the classroom now, but my prior colleagues who made the switch from early to later starts were astounded by the changes they saw in middle school students. Even the early riser teachers were sold on the switch, acknowledging it wasn't about them, but their students. To date, research suggests that teenagers who have later school starts get more sleep, have overall better health, get in fewer car accidents, and have improved academic performance. I imagine that even more research on this topic is in the works because of a rise in interest in some communities across the nation.

  11. Anonymous

    Primary teacher in New Zealand here. We start late in comparison to you, at 9am. We finish at 3pm. I've faced basically all of the problems you have with children being grumpy and sleepy and knowing that there's several of them who could stand to go to bed earlier, but don't/can't for whatever reason. If you guys started later like us, it could make a difference for children getting more sleep. I hope you guys figure out a beneficial system for all!

  12. Anonymous

    I've taught in two different districts; one with a start time of 8:30 and one with a 9:15 start time. The differences in my 7th graders' mood, behavior and overall willingness to learn about reading strategies and citing text in their essays. It's only 45 minutes, but it makes a huge difference!

  13. Anonymous

    I am a middle school teacher in Missouri. We have a 7:25 start time and class is done at 2:27. We have the same sleepy kids, but honestly that isn't the biggest issue. The main problem is those kids who sleep in and just can't make it to school on time and consistently missing 1st and 2nd hour. I have 2 kids 1st hour who (on average) I will see 3 times a week.

  14. hehe

    Here in Quebec, many schools do start between at. mainly because we have to stagger school bus schedules in the city. Honestly, I haven't noticed too much of a difference. Kids still fall asleep in class. ..

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