To combat teen sleep deprivation, California pushes back school start times

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Starting July 1, California became the first state in the country to push back school start times statewide, mandating that schools cannot start classes before 8:30 a.m. for public high schools, or 8:00 a.m. for public middle schools. 

Endorsed by numerous researchers as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the measure is intended to promote better sleep among kids and teens in order to increase their health outcomes and their performance in schools. 

As neuroscientist Steven Lockley explained, “Early school start times guarantee that children, and particularly adolescents, will become sleep deprived as their circadian clocks and sleep regulation systems naturally push sleep to a later time, making it harder to go to sleep early enough to get sufficient sleep before school.”

Why is sleep so important for kids?

Getting enough sleep is vital to a child’s academic success as well as their physical and mental health. Kids and teens who get enough sleep will tend to have better grades, better mental health, take fewer sick days, and have fewer car accidents on the drive to school. 

A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 59 percent of middle schoolers and 87 percent of high school students in the United States were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights. In fact, most high school seniors were getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night on average. 

Among other important jobs our bodies do during sleep, we release growth hormone that could become insufficient if a child doesn’t sleep enough, which can lead to developmental issues. As Lockley puts it, “Sleep is essential and should be the highest priority for children and adolescents. Schedule sleep first and then everything else around it.”

6 tips for getting kids to sleep more

Whether or not you live in a place where schools are pushing back their start times, you can watch out for other contributors to sleep deprivation in your household such as:

  • electronic device use
  • caffeine use
  • over-scheduling
  • workload
  • stress

Following these steps can help your kids get more sleep at night, which leads to better performance in school, and increased physical and mental wellbeing:

  1. Plan your routine together. A consistent bedtime routine is key for getting enough sleep at night. Establishing a nighttime ritual together helps your kids feel some control over the process, which will make them more likely to cooperate. Sit down together and talk through all of the things that you think should be a part of their bedtime routine, and write them down. You can use a chart with pictures for kids who are non-readers. 
  1. Stick to the plan. The routine works best if you stick to it seven days a week — even on weekends and holidays! Ideally, kids should go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, give or take an hour. Letting kids stay up later and sleep in on weekends can be tempting, but it sends mixed signals to their brains about when is an appropriate time to wind down for the night. 
  1. Improve their sleep space. Make sure their environment is conducive to good sleep. Their bedroom should be very dark, quiet, and comfortably cool. White noise machines and fans can help drown out any outside noise that might disturb their sleep.
  1. Capitalize on their wakeful hours. Encourage lots of physical activity and healthy meals during the daytime to prepare their bodies for a restful nighttime. Be especially mindful of how they spend the couple of hours right before bedtime — putting away screens and avoiding any sugar or caffeine.
  1. Build in time to connect. Kids may get riled up at bedtime in part because they’re wanting more attention and connection from their caregivers. It’s also possible that kids who spend all day at home with a caregiver may feel dependent on that person for extra comfort when they’re anxious. Regardless of the reason, building in some time to reconnect during their bedtime routine can help settle them down before going to sleep. This can look like a bedtime story, snuggling on the couch for five minutes, or just catching up about their day. 
  1. Reward the right behavior. Rather than punishing kids for getting up from their beds or playing after lights out, start a system for rewarding the behavior you want to see. For younger kids, this could be a sticker chart with a reward for staying in bed for seven nights in a row. For older kids, you can try rewarding them for sticking to screen time limits at night.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.