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Early School Start Times: Orlando Sentinel Commentary

Published on 11/7/2019

(Robin Henson Photographs/Courtesy Photo)

Early school start times hamper teens' brain development/Commentary

Orange County high schools start at 7:20 a.m. — that’s earlier than 90% of the high schools in America. As a pediatric neuropsychologist, member of the Orange County League of Women Voters Education Committee, and parent of two children who attend Orange County Public Schools, I can say, with confidence, this is an issue that affects our children’s brain health. 

is a time of rapid brain development. The changes in adolescent brains are happening mostly in the cortex of frontal lobes, the part of the brain that is responsible for functions such as planning, regulating emotions, focusing attention, making decisions, and self-control. This is the part of the brain that — when matured — turns a child into an adult.  

Teenagers are building new connections in their frontal lobes every day as they learn, socialize, and become more independent. These connections are like building blocks and, like a construction site, it leaves a mess that must be cleaned up before more building can take place. It is during sleep that waste products are removed from the brain and new neural connections are improved.

This is why lack of sleep in teenagers is associated with depression, anxiety, risky behaviors, car accidents, and problems with attention and learning.

A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 87% of U.S. high school students were getting less than the recommended amount of sleep on school nights. This means nearly 90% of our high schoolers are sacrificing the long-term growth of a healthy brain — brains our community depends on to grow our economy and build our future.

It is true that some lifestyle factors and academic demands contribute to this lack of sleep, and should be addressed. Parents and teens need education on behaviors that promote good sleep. Schools should be conscious of excessive academic demands that take away from time that should be devoted to sleep, family meals, exercise, socialization, jobs, and extracurricular pursuits — all the things adolescents need to develop into the best adults they can be.

However, school start times are the primary factor in this epidemic of sleep deprivation. Due to hormonal shifts in adolescence beginning around the age of 11 or 12, teenagers experience a two-hour shift in what time their bodies are able to fall asleep and wake up. This involves delay in the release of both melatonin (a hormone that helps you fall asleep) and cortisol (which helps you wake up). Most teenagers are biologically unable to fall asleep before 11 p.m., and their brains still require 8-10 hours of sleep per night.

In short, an early high school start time creates an impossible situation for teens — one in which they cannot possibly have healthy brain growth, despite whatever measures they might take.

The science on school start times is abundantly clear. Delayed school start times have been proven to work. Research shows that an appropriate start time for school results in higher grades, improved graduation rates and SAT scores, fewer car accidents, and even boosts the economy. It’s no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Unfortunately, transportation costs for Orange County Public Schools are only partially funded by the Florida state Legislature. I appreciate that the school board and superintendent are making an effort to solve this problem within their existing transportation budget. However, it is clear that these revenue-neutral solutions will only serve to pit one group of students against another. With the bus schedule spread out as it is, some students have to be in a very early start group and some in a very late start group. But all the children of our county deserve optimal brain health.

The window of school start times needs to be consolidated to reasonable hours for elementary, middle and high school for Orange County students. In fact, our governor and Legislature should fully fund transportation and ask for later school start times for the students of the entire state of Florida. All of our children deserve the opportunity for healthy brain development. It is time that we as taxpayers demand that from our governor and state Legislature, with support from the school board and superintendent.

The author is a pediatric neuropsychologist and a member of the League of Women Voters of Orange County’s Education Committee.

See original Orlando Sentinel article HERE