Parents get more sleep when middle and high schools start later in the morning

DENVER, Colo. — When schools start their days later in the morning, the biggest winners may actually be the parents! A new study finds moving back the start times for middle and high school students by an hour helps the parents of these adolescents get more sleep each week.

Researchers from National Jewish Health in Colorado conducted the first-ever review of how school start times impact parents, instead of their kids. As part of the study, the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD) adjusted their start times so elementary schools would start an hour earlier, middle schools delayed classes by 50 minutes, and high schools started 70 minutes later.

The team then surveyed parents and focus groups about how they all adjusted to the change in schedules and how it impacted their sleep.

“We know adolescents are sleep deprived. We know that early school start times are a major factor contributing to it, but kids don’t live in a vacuum; they live within a very complex family system. So, it was important to look at parents’ sleep and how this policy change impacted the entire family,” says Dr. Lisa Meltzer, a pediatric psychologist and lead author of the study, in a media release.

Parents of older kids get to sleep in!

Results show moving the school day up for elementary school students did little to affect their parents’ schedule. The study finds moms and dads of younger children shifted to slightly earlier bedtimes and wake times to meet the new school schedule, but this didn’t change their sleep duration.

Meanwhile, parents of middle and high school students generally kept their bedtimes the same but were able to sleep longer each morning thanks to the later school start times.

“For some parents, it was just nine or 10 minutes, but for others, it was up to 25 minutes a night,” Dr. Meltzer reports. “Over the course of the week, even 10 minutes a night can add up and become almost an extra hour of sleep per week.”

The study also found a higher percentage of parents getting sufficient rest each night, which researchers say means getting at least seven hours of sleep. Additionally, fewer parents of middle and high schoolers reported feeling tired throughout their days.

Parents were really feeling the benefits of not having to wake up as early, drag their kids out of bed, and try and get them to school on time,” Dr. Meltzer adds. “A lot of parents said that it not only helped their sleep, but also it helped make their morning routine easier, and I think those improvements to the way families function are really important as well.”

Starting later leads to more family time

Parents in the study note that starting high school later isn’t just good for them, it’s helping their kids perform better and giving the whole family more time to interact.

“It used to be a constant struggle getting the students in my first class to come in ready to learn. They were constantly nodding off, and it was really hard for them to focus on what I was teaching,” says CCSD teacher Kelly Osuna. “After start times were adjusted to later in the morning, I noticed a big difference in the mood that kids come to school in, and I think other districts would see that too, if they made the same switch.”

“We actually have time to eat breakfast together before we go to school. And I notice that I still have some energy at the end of the day. I’m not dragging like I used to, so that helps our family time in the evening,” Osuna, a parent of two teenagers, continues.

Better sleep is worth a schedule change

Researchers admit that there’s a lot that goes into changing school start times, such as switching bus routes and after-school sports schedules. Despite that, Dr. Meltzer believes improving the sleep quality for older children and parents is a worthy reason to shake up the school calendar.

The team’s previous studies have found that both middle and high school students benefit greatly from later school start times. They displayed less daytime sleepiness and had less of a need to “catch up” on their sleep on the weekends.

“Three out of four teens in America right now are getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, and early school start times are one of the major contributing factors,” Dr. Meltzer concludes. “We know that insufficient sleep is associated with several health problems, including obesity and high blood pressure, and is very strongly associated with mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. It also impacts their ability to pay attention and learn in school, which is critical in order for kids to be successful.”

The findings are published in the journal Sleep Health.