Everyone who remembers high school recalls the trail of mornings. Struggling to stay awake through that first class, fighting to retain anything the teacher was saying. Classmates falling asleep at their desks. The whole world seemed full of unsympathetic adults whose mantra was just to go to bed earlier, as if they had never had homework, jobs, hobbies, or friends.
Unsympathetic is one word for that oft-repeated scrap of advice. Uneducated is another. According to the National Sleep Foundation, studies as far back as the 1970s have been showing in very certain terms that we are doing students a huge disservice. Simply put, the traditional schedule for high schools could not be worse for students learning or health. Studies on five continents have shown both that teenagers need nine to ten hours of sleep per night, and that they sleep better and deeper the later they go to bed. So ‘just go to bed earlier’ as a rule is simply setting them up for insomnia, more lost sleep, and lower alertness the following day.
A typical high school day begins before 8am, with most schools starting at 7:30. Many students have extracurriculars even earlier. Voluntary classes like drivers’ education also often begin as early as 6. Teenagers, who often hit their most alert time of day as late as eight to ten at night, begin their day at a big disadvantage and it’s all uphill from there. The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that this hurts their grades and their mental and physical health. It even risks their lives, particularly that growing fraction of high school students who drive themselves and their friends to school.
It is easy to look at a teenage student lethargically going through the motions at school and blame it on laziness, on staying up all night with their phone or friends or the internet and say that in their parents’ days, that didn’t happen. That the previous generation did just fine with early school and long hours. But fifty years ago, the average high school started between eight and nine. Today’s student is in their second class by then, and only just beginning to wake up.