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Two teenagersEvery parent who has ever raised a teenager knows what kind of a struggle the morning routine can be. Nobody went to bed on time, leading to general confusion as everyone rushes out the door to get to school on time. Scientific evidence suggests that this is not the proper way to go about educating adolescents.

First of all, most teens in the United States are not getting enough sleep (defined as a minimum of eight hours per school night). In fact, less than one third of American adolescents sleep as much as they should. If your kid says that they’re tired in the morning, they are probably not lying. Unfortunately, this impacts more than just the difficulty of getting out of the house.

According to guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), adolescents failing to get at least eight hours of sleep experience a broad range of detrimental health effects. These effects include but are not limited to an increased likelihood of becoming overweight, increased feelings of depression, increased involvement with risky behaviors such as drinking; smoking; and using illegal drugs, and weaker academic performance. Faced with these statistics, the AAP advised all middle and high schools in the country to start classes no later than 8:30 am.

A joint study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the United States Department of Education recently analyzed data from the 2011-2012 school year to determine how many public schools adhered to the AAP’s recommendation. The data was pulled from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a voluntary survey conducted every five years in order to collect data on the American public education system.

The results were not promising. Of approximately 39,700 middle and high schools that responded to the survey that year, only 17.7 percent started classes at 8:30 am or later. The results varied wildly by region, as Hawaii, Wyoming, and Mississippi each had zero schools starting after 8:30 am. By contrast, schools in Alaska (76.8 percent) and North Dakota (78.5 percent) were largely compliant with the AAP’s recommendation.

Opponents of later school times frequently blame parents for not getting kids to bed on time, viewing later start times as nothing more than a Band-Aid for bad parenting. This view is not accurate. Going through puberty alters the average teen’s circadian rhythm, making them tired later at night than they were as younger children. Biologically speaking, they should go to bed and wake up later.

This does not mean that parents are helpless in aiding their teenagers get enough sleep. Studies show that all individuals benefit from a set bedtime and rise time each morning regardless of age. Students with a parent-dictated bedtime generally have better sleep habits than those without one as a result. Light and the use of electronic devices in the bedroom such as mobile phones and television sets can also hinder regenerative sleep. Research suggests that parents can improve their children’s behaviors in these areas by setting a good example themselves.

Opponents cite other issues as well, including the increased transportation costs and traffic congestion associated with merging the trip to school with rush hour and the increased difficulty in scheduling after-school sports and clubs. Advocates should point out that these are relatively minor issues compared to the health of the youth of America. They should develop a solid understanding of the relevant research in order to support their position. Special effort must also be made to reach out to those who may be adversely affected by later start times, such as parents and school bus drivers, to ensure their cooperation with the change.

School start times are chosen at the district and even individual school levels, so our math tutors suggest that a local grassroots movement would the most effective means to change school start times. It can seem like a challenging fight at times, but the battle has been won before and can be won again.

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