Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
On a regular basis I read or hear about a parent group asking a school board to schedule school start times an hour or two later.
These well-meaning parents – typically flanked by doctors and psychologists – often present two arguments. First, they worry about their children’s safety at the bus stop – standing at a busy street corner or alongside an isolated country road in the pre-dawn hours.
Their second argument is much more common, and typically supported with reams of medical reports and psychological data stating that kids today just don’t get enough sleep. Let them sleep until 8 o’clock, they say, and their physical health, their mental health, and their grades will improve.
That mix of emotional and academic appeals weighs heavy on the minds of district administrators who strive to cram the required instructional minutes and the desired extra-curricular activities into a “ school day” that seems to get shorter every school year.
Is the Earth spinning faster? Does the sun shine less brightly? Why wasn’t this a problem 20 or 30 years ago?
Changing the school start time is not the answer to the bus stop safety issue or the sleep-deprived student issue. Ideally, a solution should erase the possibility of of a negative result, or at least decrease the likelihood significantly. Changing the school start time does neither. A school start time change impacts every family in the district, as well as all school employees. That's a big change, and big changes demand big results. Oh, the goals are worthy, but the solution is misplaced. Instead, let’s look at both matters and their solutions.
Waitin' for the Bus
First, the bus stop issue, because it’s the easiest. If a parent feels that their child is unsafe at the school bus stop, they should immediately bring this situation to the school district administrator in charge of transportation. Nobody wants a child to be in danger at the bus stop, and honestly, I can’t imagine a caring parent putting a child in that situation. A bus stop should be safe at all hours, not just broad daylight. The appropriate solution is clear – fix the bus stop! Don’t change the start time for every student (and teacher) in the school or district just because one or two bus stops are unsafe. Parents, principals, and administrators should work together to locate areas where students can safely wait for the bus in all seasons.
And really, are parents so helpless these days that they will put their child in danger just because the school says so? Are little Billy and Suzy condemned to standing in the gutter during a thunderstorm, surrounded by darkness and howling coyotes, just because school starts at 7:30 AM? If I’m that parent, I’m standing there with my child, safely away from the roadway with a flashlight (and umbrella) in hand. And later that day I’m at the district office, talking with the transportation supervisor. In fact, my complaint will probably motivate the superintendent to examine all of the bus stops, and solicit ways to make them safer. Every day. I’ll be a hero (if I’m not already!)
Sleepy, Sleepy Students
The second reason for changing the start time – lack of student sleep – is more prevalent. Fortunately, it has an easier solution. Are you ready? Go to bed earlier!
That’s it. The solution for being sleepy is more sleep. And if we want our children to get more sleep, then we have to make sleep a priority. We have to schedule it. It has to take precedence over other things. It’s a natural part of being a human, and like other biological functions, it can’t be ignored!
Let’s do the math. I’ll start with eight hours of sleep. Some of the later-start research suggests 9 or 10 hours for children, but I’ll be conservative. Let’s say your child has to get out of bed at 6 AM to get ready for school. That means bed-time is 10 PM. Lights out. Eyes closed. Sleep. Does your child need to get up at 5:30 AM? Then bed-time is 9:30 PM. Do the math.
Okay, the math part is easy. Then why do we see so many sleepy kids in school? Why are elementary children falling asleep at their desks? Why do middle schoolers yawn all day? Why are high school students missing first period because they can’t seem to get out of bed? I can think of three possible reasons that students aren’t getting to bed on time: homework, activities, and entertainment.
And as I write the following paragraphs, my mature years will become apparent. Times have changed, and so have attitudes about homework, activities, and entertainment. Until I was a junior in high school and working my first job at McDonalds, I had a parent-mandated bedtime. My parents weren’t strict; in fact they were probably more lenient than most. But they told me when to go to bed, and I accepted that. It was their house, and their rules. And I was never sleepy at school.
Too Much Homework
This reason is often given as rationale to start school later: children have to stay up late doing all the homework given by teachers.
Okay – so let’s say the child arrives at home at 4 PM. The kitchen table is cleared, the school books appear, and the homework begins. No cell phone. No texting. No Facebook. No TV. No MP3 player. Just homework. That’s how it was at my house, and completing homework in a timely manner was rarely a problem. Parents may need to sit beside the child to keep them on task. But the fun starts when the homework is finished.
Of course, I had a full-time Mom at home, and so did my daughter. And I realize that not everybody’s in that position. Many schools have after-school study halls where students complete their homework, and get help from teachers, too. Boys & Girls Clubs often provide similar services. Talk to your school administration about starting such a service. But the best time for homework is before supper. The longer it’s delayed, the harder it is for the child to start.
Could a child possibly have too much homework? Sure. I’ve seen it. This is especially true when middle school and high school students are taking a full schedule of advanced classes. Sit down with your child. Look over the assignments. If a child comes home from school and begins homework immediately, works continuously with minimal breaks, and still can’t get enough sleep, then the parent needs to talk to the principal. That sounds like a rare case of homework overload to me.
Too Many Activities
Many students are missing sleep because of the activities that they participate in. Sometimes these activities are school-related (sports, cheer, dance, band) and sometimes they aren’t (gymnastics, travel-team sports, private lessons, etc.)
I certainly see value in sports and activities. I played Little League baseball, joined several clubs, and played in the band when I was in school. Some of my fondest memories are from those activities. But I can honestly say it never got in the way of my schoolwork. My coaches, my band directors, and my club sponsors always made schoolwork a priority. Years later when I worked as a middle school librarian, the coaches hosted an afterschool/before-practice study hall for all athletes in the library. Those coaches made sure their athletes finished their homework.
Unfortunately, over-involvement in an activity can lead to missed bed-times. This is especially true with activities that aren’t related to school. Here’s an example: a few years ago a 7th grade girl in my first period class would arrive 30 minutes late half the time, and sleep in class the other half. Of course, we had a parent-teacher-student conference within a few weeks. This bright, pleasant young lady was practicing gymnastics at a local gym after school until 8 PM every night. Then she ate supper at home (or from drive-thru), attempted her homework, and went to bed. The next morning she was still exhausted, and the cycle began again. Of course, her emotions spilled over in the conference, and she explained that her parents were paying a lot for gymnastics lessons, and her coach really wanted her to win a medal at the next competition. She wasn’t having any fun, and she was failing most of her classes. This line of reasoning is totally illogical to most adults, but makes perfect sense to a 13 year old.
So, would a later start time help this girl get another hour of sleep? No. It would simply change her gym time to later in the evening. Starting school later means we end school later. At the risk of stating the absurd, starting school an hour later doesn’t add a 25th hour to the day.
Here’s an idea: all elementary and middle school-sponsored activities on a school night begin after the homework is finished and end by 8 PM. Get ‘em home, and get ‘em to bed.
Entertainment: Too Much Access, and Too Little Supervision
Actually, I think access to electronic entertainment and communication is the biggest reason we have so many sleepy students. Many students have unlimited access to home entertainment, with no one making them turn it off and go to bed. I’ve talked to several students who fall asleep in front of the TV every night. Changing a school start time won’t fix this.
Simply stated, a child’s bedroom shouldn’t be a home entertainment center. A teenager shouldn’t be tempted to stay up all-night and binge-watch Game of Thrones. Unplug the wi-fi. Confiscate the smart phone. No one really needs to be messaging with a tween or teenager after 10 PM. It can wait until tomorrow. It’s time to go to bed.
And any child who can operate a TV remote can operate an alarm clock. Students 12 and older can be responsible for setting that alarm and getting out of bed on time.
Children need an adequate amount of sleep. There’s no disputing that. But is the school start time really the problem? Are parents insisting on distraction free homework sessions? Are sports and activities prioritized properly? Are computers, TVs, video game systems, and smart phones turned off at bedtime? Is anybody taking responsibility?
Let me state – and this may surprise you – that it’s perfectly fine to change the school start time. You can start at 7 AM. Or 8. Or 9. It’s all good. But let’s be honest and mature about it. Let’s just say, “Hey, I think it would be great if school started at 9 AM!” and see who agrees with you. That means the school day is over around 4:30 PM. And if that’s what works for your community, then go for it.
But in the interim, let’s teach our children to be responsible, use their time wisely, and make the classroom a priority. We can rework the school bell schedule over and over, but we can’t add extra hours into the clock. And even if we could, would our children really use those hours to sleep?
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 36 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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