The Impact of Early School Start Times on Teen Sleep

Young man sleeping in bed

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Oct 14, 2022

The tipping point came during a routine morning drive to school in 2015.

“…that was the year that my oldest was entering high school,” recounts Lisa L. Lewis, mother of two. “And at that point, our local high school started at 7:30 in the morning. And that just felt incredibly early,” she says.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a parenting journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and the Atlantic. Lisa L. Lewis is also a mother of two, and an advocate for healthy school start times. In 2022, she became an author. Her book is called the sleep deprived teen why our teenagers are so tired, and how parents and schools can help them thrive. Lisa joins us today from Southern California. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you for having me. Hello.

So much to talk to you about Lisa. But I’d like to start at sort of the beginning of this story in many respects. Your op ed in 2016, in the Los Angeles Times, is widely hailed as really kick starting the national conversation about healthy school start times for teens and tweens in the United States. What compelled you to take a stand in that way, and on this particular topic.

So thank you for mentioning that. And I will say I am a parent, I have a 17 year old and a 20 year old. And I’m also parenting journalist. So for me actually, the issue really hit my radar a year prior to that in 2015, because that was the year that my oldest was entering high school. And at that point, our local high school started at 730 in the morning. And that just felt incredibly early. So the official start time for first period was 730. We were leaving the house every day about 710. I was driving him there. And I could just look over and see, you know, he was hardly alert and ready for a full day of learning. And it just felt incredibly early. It was the earliest that he had ever had to go to school. So I sort of put on my journalism hat and started looking into this shoe and trying to figure out why was it that our high school started so early. And what I quickly found was that it was not unique to our high school to our community. And not only that, the previous year 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics had just come out with a very influential policy statement recommending that middle and high school start no earlier than 830. Because of the impact that these two early start times have on teen sleep. So clearly 730 was far too early. So I started writing about it is I want to do. And I think my first article started coming out the spring of his freshman year, but it was that op ed the one that you mentioned that ran in September of 2016. It was called why school should start later in the day. And that random The Los Angeles Times. And it just so happened it was read by one of our California state senators. So his district was in Los Angeles. At that time, his daughter was just entering high school, and their high school was having conversations about start time. So this was an issue that resonated with him. He he literally read my op ed in the newspaper. And that was sort of the genesis of him looking into the issue further with an eye towards introducing a bill on the topic. And that was exactly what ended up happening. And I got swept up in that entire journey. The bill was introduced in February of 2017. It was a two and a half year process. I ended up testifying up in Sacramento at the state capitol, one of the committee hearings was very involved throughout this whole process. And it was lengthy it was that won’t even get into all the committee hearings and the votes etc. It got all the way the governor’s desk got vetoed the first time around so had to go through all those steps all over again, finally got signed into law in the fall of 2019. And that’s the law that just went into effect this past July here in California. And we are the only state right now in the entire country to have a law that sets any sort of minimum allowed start times for middle and high schools.

So it’s only been a few weeks. But I wonder Have you been able to gauge an impact on this law that went into effect in July of 2022 in the state of California on healthy school start times?

Well, so it’s interesting because I believe that we will see a ton of studies that will come out about this. But what happens typically is the researchers do pre and post surveys you know before the start time change and after and then they look to see you know where these gains endure. And what has been found time and time again is that when schools move to a later start times students get more sleep. And those are lasting improvements. So usually, with the studies that I’ve seen, they go back two years after the change, to really gauge the impact. So I think we’re a little early in terms of seeing the official results. But clearly, with this happening on a statewide level, it is it is going to be a treasure trove of information. And I do expect that it will mirror the results because this was not, you know, an experimental change. This was based on quite literally decades of research. And the very first school in fact, to change its start times based on the literature was in 1996, in at in a diner, Minnesota. So there’s already a in abundance of data out there about this, but it will be very, very interesting when we can finally start seeing what you know, some of this from California’s change.

I’m curious during the time that this bill was making its way through all the channels as you describe what was happening in your home with your son, because it’s presumably that was still going on in terms of his his early school day start?

Yes, no, he still had a 730 start time. And it was it was somewhat sad. In fact, there you know, both my kids, of course, were very aware of my involvement in the Senate one point, you know, I remember him sort of saying, sadly, well, it’s not going to happen in time for me. And it didn’t, the official time change did not happen. I will tell you, though, we did end up doing a workaround his senior year, which is sort of one of the things that I found out parents were sort of quietly doing to, you know, to deal with, with these situations when you do have these really early start times, and you see just how painful it is. And so what we did his senior year, was he did not take the first period. In fact, he did an online class instead. And so that did allow him to start at 830. And I was hearing these kinds of stories from other parents, too, that they were just sort of quietly coming up with these solutions, rather than us addressing this bigger issue. So I am so so pleased that finally we have addressed the fact that, you know, 730, or even seven, when I did the research, I found their schools out there starting at seven. So I think it is such a boon to our teens not to have those start times anymore.

Now Ariana, Huffington CEO of Thrive global has described your book, The sleep deprived teen as, quote, a call to action for parents everywhere to help their team, the teens thrive. What is the call to action that you propose?

Well, so we have this change here in California, as we’ve been talking about. But we are the only state that has this law. So I do devote the really, it’s the the last third of the book to tangible steps that parents can take. And we can talk a bit about things parents can do in our own homes to help our teams. But the biggest policy change that can be made is changing the start times. So I do get into a lot of detail about that. And my hope would be that California has changed. And the fact that we now have this in place, is going to help put some wind in the sails of some other states that have current bills under consideration, and maybe also will foster similar actions elsewhere.

You yourself have had the benefit of lived experience that you described with your son, you’ve also had the benefit of years of research going through this topic. What do you believe is incumbent fundamental for the average parent to understand about teenagers and sleep?

That is such a good question. What I found was that there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to sleep. And I think when it comes to sleep overall, I would say that many of us are sleep deprived. You know, we are up against this attitude that sort of you can get by on less sleep, that that’s somehow a badge of honor. And so I think that’s sort of the first misconception to take off the table because none of us function any better when we are sleep deprived. You know, we do it because we have to, but there is no benefit from that. And when it comes to teams, there are several core pieces of information that I that I always like to start with, because I feel like sometimes these these aren’t as widely understood. The first is, you know, and it sounds obvious and yet our teens are not yet adults. You know, they are still going through this massive phase of development. We see the physical The transformations that take place, but they are going through a massive phase of brain development too. And they are not yet adults, they don’t yet have adult sleep needs up until age 18. The official recommendation is eight to 10 hours of sleep every single night. And I think sometimes that isn’t as widely understood, because we hear oh, eight hours, well, that’s the, that’s great. For adults, the range for us is seven to nine hours. But for teens, that’s the minimum of what they should be getting. And then when you realize how few of them are even hitting that minimum, it just gives you a sense of how widespread this issue is. Just a quick data point, the CDC in 2019, as part of their Youth Risk Behavior Survey, they asked high schoolers how much sleep they were getting only 22%, were even hitting that minimum of eight hours a night. So this really, truly is an issue. And there’s one other piece because so often people say, Oh, well, if they’re so tired, how can they don’t just go to bed earlier, you know, as if the teens are being stubborn by doing that. So this is another piece that I found is not always as widely understood, which is that at puberty, our kids undergo a circadian rhythm shift. So their body clock shifts to a later schedule. So if you have young kids, you know, don’t they found out a bed at six in the morning, they run hard all day, they fall asleep at seven or eight at night. You know, that’s great. But that does not happen when when kids hit the teen years, all of a sudden they shift later. And that is because of this underlying circadian rhythm shift. So what happens is melatonin, which is the hormone that Prime’s us to feel sleepy, begins to be released later in the evening. And it doesn’t subside until later in the morning. And so our teens are quite, you know, quite often they are not feeling sleepy until about 11 o’clock at night. So it isn’t as if Oh, well, teens would just go to bed at nine o’clock problem solved because they would lay there and stare at the ceiling. And then you just do the math Well, if they’re not sleeping till about 11 o’clock at night. And then of course, some of them are going to bed at 11. But then to get eight to 10 hours of sleep, you can see why a start time of seven or 730 makes that practically impossible.

Without question. Now I think it’s also really important to understand what some of the more alarming consequences of chronic sleep deprivation among tweens and teens include Can you take us through some of those?

Absolutely. Well, as I was mentioning earlier, nobody does anything better when they’re sleep deprived, so So that’s true across the board. For instance, when you think about as an adult, when we are sleep deprived, we are more impulsive, more emotional. Well, that is even more so for our teens. And that has to do with the fact that they are still in the space of adolescent brain development. But we know teen sleep deprivation exacerbates mental health issues. So depression, anxiety, even suicidality, we know that it drags down school performance. And personally, they see attendance go up, they see. tardies go down, they see grade school, graduation rates also go up fairly significantly. So from a school standpoint, there are very real gains. And then there’s also a lot that are probably more in the realm of public health, because teens who don’t get enough sleep are more impulsive, more prone to risky behaviors. And that also includes things like drowsy driving.

Absolutely. When you start to think about it, it really does give you pause, whether you’re a parent or not because of that teen or that child is you know, driving or doing anything involving other people, they instantly can become a danger to other people. Take us through Lisa, some of the tangible actions that parents can consider taking to create a sleep friendly environment in their homes for their children.

Yes, and this is something that I would say also parents can Can, can do for themselves too, I will say I have become much more aware of sleep hygiene is what they call it, you know, sort of these best practices. So the first area and I’ll just sort of touch on this because it’s a huge topic and that is technology. I have a whole chapter on it in my book and you know, it is sort of the in some ways the bane of our existence now where it is so ingrained in our lives as adults, it’s so ingrained in our kids lives. You know, they have to be on tech even just to do their homework. You know, you can’t just turn in a handwritten book report anymore. They are online to do their homework and to turn in their assignments online, let alone the piece, you know that that is social media. So a couple things I would say about that. The first is when it comes to elective media use just to recognize that tech is such an integral part of their social lives, you know, the same way I used to spend hours talking on the telephone. Well, now kids, you know, Snapchat or whatever apps they’re using, it is legitimately a major piece of how they relate to their peers. So so we do need to recognize that. The other piece is that all of these apps have been designed to be deliberately immersive. So the team brand is even more receptive to rewards. That’s what likes are in social media, that’s what Leveling up is in a video game. So just to sort of understand what we’re up against, I mean, it really has been designed to be as enticing to them as possible. So and you know, that that can be fine, it has its place. But ideally, that place does not include in the bedroom, and it does not include being on it up until the second you turn out the light. So best practices would be no tech use an hour before bedtime. And those are actually the official recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, no devices in the bedroom at night, charging them all in a central location like the kitchen. The caveat being it’s not just the teens devices that should be charged there, it’s hours to you know, because when they see us walking the talk, I think that that can be a whole lot more effective. Second piece, and this is something I I’ve become much more mindful about is having a wind down routine. So a sequence of steps that you take to help with that transition. Because our brains are not like computers. So you don’t just you know, close it and boom, go to sleep, having some series of steps that you take, that helps sort of signal to yourself that yes, we’re moving into, you know, getting ready for bed. It’s similar to what we did when our kids were little, when you think about it, you know, oftentimes, there’d be an elaborate routine with a story and a snuggle, and all that. And so this is, you know, sort of along those lines, but this is done by the teen themselves, or, you know, by the adult, in my case, reading a book before bed, an actual print book is something that I do. For some people, it’s taking a warm bath, it could be listening to a podcast, because again, you know, just listening, not not looking at it. But it’s coming up with that series of steps that works for you as part of a wind down routine. And being consistent about that. And then another piece I would recommend for parents is to take a look at their team’s schedules, everything they have on their plate, and see if they might have too much on that plate. Because you know, it’s so easy to keep adding things without sort of looking at the cumulative impact of not just the time they’re in school, but the anticipated homework load for each class they’re taking, which of course can be higher if they’re taking an honors or an advanced level class. And then all the other things they do outside of school, whether it’s sports, or drama, or band or speech and debate or club sports or a job. All of those obviously take time. But if you look at how much time all of those take, and you see that there’s not an eight to 10 hour window left in that schedule, it may be time to reevaluate.

Great food for thought. Certainly, Lisa, I’m curious, was there a particular piece of research that you poured over and uncovered in the course of your journey through this to producing this book that really struck you that, you know, of all the things you’d heard and experienced in your own home? You saw this piece of research and you said to yourself, Oh, my goodness, that is like we have to pay attention to that?

Yeah, that is a great question. There. There were several I have to say, because I really did spend months and I was fortunate to have met and being in contact with so many of these researchers as part of our legislative process here in California. I would say finding out more about the role of sleep in suicidality that was a real eye opener for me and as a parent, it’s the kind of thing that just sends chills down your spine. Because all of us and especially our teens have been through so much these these last few years. And you know, it’s already hard enough for them and then when you layer in sleep deprivation, you realize the real harm that’s doing. I think another piece that you really was interesting to me was when I looked at technology, and really sort of looked at it, what it the evidence of what was out there. To find that, you know, we always hear about blue light, and blue light does have an impact, because it is alerting, you know, it helps us feel more alert. But to find that it was not considered the primary reason why tech use can impact sleep, that it’s one of the top three, but it was, but these other two, ranked higher. And the other two were the fact that it just takes time away from sleep, which again, makes sense when you think about if you’re up until 130, playing a video game, you are literally cutting into your sleep time. But the second piece, which I alluded to earlier, was the fact that generally what we do what our teens do on tech is so immersive and engaging and stimulating. So if a teen is, you know, involved in some deep conversation with a friend about some issue that’s going on, and they’re doing that back and forth by text, it’s not just the light from the text, it’s it’s the fact that, you know, it’s all the emotions that it brings up. And so, you know, it makes sense intuitively when you think about it, but I think we hear so much about blue light. And just to recognize that these other aspects of tech use really do, in fact, have more of an impact when it comes to how they’re taking away from our teens ability to get a good night’s sleep.

But another aspect that you cover in your book, Lisa is how sleep is affected by gender, sexual identity, and socio economic demographic, which is really quite interesting. In terms of, you know, a study area and a research area, can you take us through some of the highlights of what you found there?

Yes, and I’m so glad you mentioned that because that too, was was something I should have mentioned that I wasn’t as aware of. And I feel like some of these are such large issues, that it isn’t necessarily something we can fix. But being aware of these additional complicating factors, I think is so important. So first when we talk about biological sex, because that’s because that’s really what it is it has to do with biology. Well, turns out that at puberty is when it starts to diverge, where girls have a higher propensity for insomnia and also take longer to fall asleep. But the other key complicating factors that biological females have is oftentimes their sleep is impacted by their monthly menstrual cycle. So you know, PMS period, pain, all of those can affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. And there was, once one study I saw that said, up to 93% of us girls indicate that they do have pain when on a monthly basis, and ranging from mild to severe. But nevertheless, they do have pain associated with their periods. And then also the fact that about half of us girls have gotten their periods by age 12. So just to sort of, you know, give you a sense of the scope of this. And this is a regular occurrence. And it’s an additional complicating factor when it comes to sleep. Similarly, the research shows that teens of color are disproportionately likely to sleep worse than their counterparts. And a lot of that has to do with discrimination. And this can be everything from microaggressions on up, but they have a cumulative impact. And the fact that, you know, they contribute that to these ongoing stressors that that our teens are facing that impact their sleep, there’s even what’s called epigenetic factors, which is essentially a legacy of discrimination that’s been handed handed down. And so for teens of color, the bottom line is, they tend to not sleep as well as their counterparts. The same is true for LGBTQ teens. And again, a lot of this does end up often being attributed to discrimination. But the bottom line is, they often don’t sleep as well. And then the same is true when you look at issues of poverty and neighborhood environment. And a teen who doesn’t feel safe, where they live, who lives somewhere where it’s crowded, or noisy, or is going to bed hungry, is not going to sleep as well. And so it’s particularly concerning when you when you think about the fact that a team can be in more than one of those categories. And just to be aware that these are all additional complicating factors above and beyond what teens are already facing. And so I think it sort of brings home and underscores why it’s so important to allow our teens the opportunity and not be cutting into that sleep with the start times that are so early because there’s often so much else that they already are dealing with.

Absolutely. Can you paint us a picture Lisa, of some of the school start times currently in the United States that really caught your eye, and what more needs to be done to ensure that California is not the first and only state to have addressed this topic and brought it a law forward to address it?

Well, there have been various service and I don’t have the latest in front of me. But the average start time in the US for high school is about 8am, I believe was the latest survey that I have seen. But that is the average. And there are some schools that start far earlier than that there were some states where the average start time was far earlier, I believe Louisiana was close to 730. And again, that’s the average. So in California, even prior to our law going into effect, I found high schools that had a regular first period start time of 7am. And I know that is still the case in countless other communities around the country, because there has been no floor of how early schools were allowed to start. And it’s extra sort of ironic that in many cases, these schedules were put in place years ago before this research on teen sleep was as widely understood as it is now. And it was not done for student health and well being it was often done because of the bus schedule. So districts were looking to save money by just using one fleet of buses. And so they instituted a tiered system of drop offs and pickups. And they often ended up putting the high schoolers in the earliest time slot thinking oh, well, they’re the oldest they should be able to handle it. Well, now we know that if anything goes scheduled, should be flipped. But in so many cases, these legacy schedules have endured.

Very interesting. Indeed. Lisa, if there’s one thing that you’d like readers of your book to take away, what would that be?

To make sleep a priority. And I say that to the adults too, because I know. As I mentioned earlier, so many of us end up being sleep deprived too. And when we are well rested, and our teens are well rested, it really sets the stage for better interactions.

Right across the family. Absolutely. Lisa L. Lewis, parenting journalist and author of the sleep deprived teen, thank you so much for sharing your time with us today.

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

Her then-13-year-old son’s first period class commenced daily at 7:30 a.m., part of the Southern California school district where the family of four still live. That daily drive gave Lewis a front row seat on what would become a lightning rod issue.

“We were leaving the house every day about 7:10,” she continues. I was driving him there. And I could just look over and see, he was hardly alert and ready for a full day of learning. It was the earliest that he had ever had to go to school,” Lewis told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk.

With her motherly instinct primed, and her curiosity as a journalist piqued — Lewis set out to find out more about the impact of early school start times on a tween, teen or adolescent’s body clock.

“What I quickly found was that it was not unique to our high school, to our community,” says Lewis, who specializes in parenting journalism. “Not only that, the previous year 2014, the American Academy of Paediatrics had just come out with a very influential policy statement recommending that middle and high school start no earlier than 8:30 because of the impact that these two early start times have on teen sleep.”

Her lived experience combined with the science set the wheels in motion for Lewis. 

She grabbed the proverbial ‘baton’ and kept running with it.

“I started writing about it as I am wont to do,” Lewis continues. 

Lisa L. Lewis headshotOne of her first articles on the topic was an op-ed called: “Why school should start later in the day.”

It appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2016, and quickly sparked a national discussion across the United States.

“It just so happened it was read by one of our California state senators. His district was in Los Angeles. At that time, his daughter was just entering high school, and their high school was having conversations about start times. So this was an issue that resonated with him.”

Fast forward to July 1, 2022, Lewis’ sons are now 20 and 17 years old. 

She is a first-time author. And the state in which her family lives became the first of its kind in the US to pass a law requiring morning bells in middle and high schools to ring at a healthy start time — 8:00 AM or later for middle school students and 8:30 AM or later in high schools.

Lewis took up the mantle from that initial op-ed, watching the groundswell of support for healthy school start times build to finally propel the bill through the Senate and into law.

“This was based on quite literally decades of research,” says Lewis referring to the new law. “The very first school in fact, to change its start times based on the literature was in 1996, in Minnesota.”

Chronic sleep deprivation has been widely described as a societal epidemic. Sleep science has yielded increasingly compelling data around the sleep patterns and circadian rhythms of adolescents — during their greatest phase of development.

“We are up against this attitude that sort of you can get by on less sleep, that that’s somehow a badge of honour,” adds Lewis. “So I think that’s sort of the first misconception to take off the table because none of us function any better when we are sleep deprived.”

Her personal and professional journey drove Lewis to pen a book on the subject.

Sleep-Deprived Teen coverPublished in 2022, the book is called: The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive.

“We know teen sleep deprivation exacerbates mental health issues — depression, anxiety, even suicidality. We know that it drags down school performance,” says Lewis, who devotes much of her book to sleep science and tangible steps parents, families and children can take to promote sleep health.

“I will say I have become much more aware of sleep hygiene, these best practices.”

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Lisa L. Lewis also discusses:

  • Tips for parents to support healthy sleep habits
  • The impact of poor sleep
  • Adolescent sleep differences

Related links:

Where Parents Talk on 105.9 The Region FM

The Relationship Between Co-sleeping and High Body Mass Index (BMI)

Dr. Wendy Troxel: Why Teen Sleep Patterns are So Different and How Parents Can Help – POV from A Sleep Scientist

Why Teen Sleep Patterns are So Different and How Parents Can Help: POV from A Sleep Scientist

Mom of four and CEO shares her top sleep tips for babies

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