Starting high school in the 7 am hour is risky and counterproductive for many teens.
Adolescent body clocks run later than those in adults. Many teen-agers are truly unable to fall asleep before 11 pm or midnight. They become sleep deprived if they nevertheless have to get up at 5:30 to make the school bus on time. Some actually cannot stay awake in their early classes. Those that can are not thinking well and not learning well. The daily fatigue is stressful. Over a period of time this can result in depression, obesity, risky behavior, and predisposition to chronic diseases such as diabetes or fibromyalgia. All this is established science.
You cannot simply say "Go to bed earlier." This is not a choice: teens are hardwired to have a later melatonin onset, hence a later sleep onset, than adults. Sleep researchers have elucidated a "forbidden zone", a period of three hours or so before one's natural sleep time when it is particularly difficult to fall asleep. There's a feeling of getting a "second wind" during that time.
Many people are flexible in when they can sleep. But many others are not. Some are so hard-wired that they cannot sleep at all outside their "sleep window", no matter how tired they are. It's like they have "internal caffeine" keeping them awake. Even if they are able to fall asleep at first, they don't sleep well, and they may often wake up after an hour or two and not be able to fall asleep again for hours.
Please don't make the mistake of saying "My child can discipline herself to get to sleep on time, so yours can too." We are not all the same. And we need to provide a learning environment for all our students.
You would not say "My child can run a mile in 4½ minutes, so yours should too"; or "My child scored 800 on her math SAT, yours can too, with a little discipline." Because individuals vary in what they can and cannot do.
Similarly you cannot tell a teen-ager with delayed sleep, "My child can get to sleep earlier when she gets tired enough, so can you." Because the teen with the delayed body clock cannot get good quality sleep earlier. Research shows this, even if the public is not yet widely aware of it.
And yes, cutting out the smartphone use or the computer use in the late evening can make some difference, but it does not fix the entire problem for many teens. Some will have the flexibility to make the early hours work well enough, but many won't.
We have come to understand the structure of sleep, the various stages that healthy sleepers pass through to get restorative sleep and to feel alert in the morning. It is not just about being unconscious for a certain number of hours. Sleep is most restorative when it coincides with the body's natural rhythms.
These are human beings, young ones at that. They are not machines that can be programmed into an arbitrary schedule. Naturally, some kids find it easier to shift their schedule than others. But for some it is nearly impossible. It is pitiful to watch them struggle so hard to get up, get to class, and try to process the information coming at them. It is cruel to force them to do this day after day. It is very stressful for them to push through the mental fog on a daily basis, and they're certainly not learning as well as they could be.
How many teens are most seriously affected? Research estimates indicate that about 10% of teens have sleep hours so unchangeable that it rises to the level of a disorder: delayed sleep phase disorder. These kids simply cannot learn at such early hours. Perhaps another third or more struggle to stay awake in their early classes, and their learning is compromised. What a waste of education dollars, to spend them on teaching at hours when so many students are unteachable.
The purpose of school is schooling - not football or other after school activities. Proper health for achieving learning must have the highest priority, and later start times will help students achieve academic success. Please — START SCHOOL LATER.
Peter Mansbach, President
Circadian Sleep Disorders Network