Let's wake up to sleep survey results


The importance of sleep to individual productivity has been repeatedly reinforced in scientific research over the past decade or more. Now comes a new study out of Rhode Island that seems to emphasize the common sense conclusion that if extra sleep is good for adult workers, it surely must be good for young learners as well.

In particular, the study published in the July edition of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that starting school half an hour later can have a substantial positive impact on the behavior and learning of high school students.

Although it reinforces a small body of similar previous research, this is just one study, of course, and it concentrated on just a couple hundred students at a single particular high school.

But the results reported are so striking that they demand examination by suburban schools.

To some extent, the thought of starting school half an hour later may send shudders up the spines of some coaches, teachers, parents and students who know that a half-hour later start also means a half-hour later finish in the evening - although the school in the Rhode Island study altered class times to minimize this effect.

But consider what the Brown University research in Middletown, R.I., found: When the school start was moved back 30 minutes, students were more attentive, less depressed and better prepared to learn. So impressed were school officials and originally reluctant parents that after nine weeks, the schedule based on an 8:30 a.m. start time was made permanent.

"The results were stunning. There's no other word to use," the school's academic dean said.

Research finds that adolescents tend to have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m., so they must sleep until at least 7 a.m. to get a good eight hours of rest. Clearly, for schools that start at around 7:30 a.m., as many suburban high schools do, that's not realistic, especially for students who have to catch a bus. So, it's easy to see how a later school start can accommodate better-rested learners.

We know that existing start times were not determined lightly, and numerous factors must be considered before something as fundamental as the schedule of the school day is disrupted. Even so, the Middletown study demonstrates that the time has come for school boards, administrators, teachers and parents to re-examine the daily school schedule. We all constantly emphasize legitimately relevant issues such as class size, available resources, learning atmosphere and teacher quality in determining the success of our schools.

It may be that something requiring no additional money but only a slight shift in our habits and thinking could play a material role in the formula for successful learning. We should be working to find out how much of a role that is and how to use it to our kids' advantage.