The Real Benefit of a Later Start Time in Schools

Our children deserve adults who can exercise creativity, proactivity, and grit in instituting structural changes that make everyone better off.

Last month, I wrote about the different ways that self-control strategies can help all of us, especially the teenagers in our lives, sleep better. I hope these tips have helped you make progress on your own New Year’s resolutions.

But self-control isn’t the only way to fight temptation. Sometimes, the smartest solution is for other people to solve our problems for us. In particular, one policy change could radically increase the amount of time teenagers sleep: delay the start time of classes to an hour that more closely fits their biological clocks.

A recent Rand report concluded that starting both middle and high school classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. would translate into $8.6 billion in economic gains within two years of the change. How so? Adequate sleep can improve academic achievement, which correlates with higher income in adulthood. And more well-rested teenagers get into fewer car accidents.

Like so many common sense policies, delaying start times for high school students has met with resistance. One issue is budget: for many districts, it’s necessary to stagger bus schedules to save money. True, but why not flip-flop times so that elementary school students—who are natural morning larks—are picked up earlier, making it possible for middle and high school students—who are natural night owls—to go later?

“Well, I don’t love the idea of my 11-year-old waiting for the bus in the dark,” one mom told me. Her district had just announced precisely the sort of transportation schedule I’m describing.

True again, but why not consider lighting for bus stops? Or, given the resources of this particular district, simply paying for more buses so that all students get to school at the same time?

All solutions create their own problems, but in the case of school start times, our children deserve adults who can exercise creativity, proactivity, and grit in instituting structural changes that make everyone better off. Many school districts have successfully adjusted, and the state of California recently passed a bill mandating later start times for most secondary school students by 2022.

Don’t assume that self-control challenges are the exclusive responsibility of the individual. Adults are accountable for creating the conditions for children to thrive.

Do keep working on those New Year’s resolutions, using every self-control strategy you can to outwit temptation. At the same time, advocate for policies that make healthy habits, like a good night’s sleep, easier for everyone.

With grit and gratitude,

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