CDC Says Early School Day Is Bad for Kids. Is Homeschool the Answer?

The Romeikes homeschool their children
The Romeikes homeschool their children | (Photo: Home School Legal Defense Association)

A lack of sleep can have serious consequences in a school-age child's life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it can affect not only their academic success but also their health and safety.

A study published in the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that fewer than one in five middle schools and high schools in the United States began their school days at or later than the recommended 8:30 a.m. start time during the 2011-2012 school year. It's a tough problem to solve for public schools, but it could be one reason that homeschooling has grown in popularity over the past decade.

The study was conducted by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education. They reviewed data from nearly 40,000 public middle school and high schools and determined that the early start times made it nearly impossible for students to get the amount of sleep they need to function at proper levels. It is recommended that children get between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep per night and schools that start before 8:30 a.m. do not allow that to consistently happen. The time it takes to travel to school, especially on public school bus systems makes the problem even worse.

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For some, the solution may be found in homeschooling. Data published in May 2015 by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that in 2012, the number of homeschooled children had grown to 1.7 million, or 3.4 percent of elementary and secondary school-aged children that year. That number represented a 61.8 percent increase over the 677,000 homeschooled students reported in 2003.

Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute and editor-in-chief of the academic journal Home School Researcher, is not surprised by the CDC report.

"Findings on the sleep needs of adolescents are clearly another case of how the individualization and flexibility of homeschooling can serve children and teens well," Ray said. "Institutional schooling struggles to meet the needs of children, while home-based education naturally meets a whole variety of needs."

Ray cited a 2013 study conducted by sleep psychologist Dr. Lisa Meltzer. Meltzer's study for National Jewish Health found that homeschooled students generally slept 90 minutes longer a night than the average high school student, and they woke up almost 20 minutes after most high schools had started.

Consistent lack of sleep contributes to several problems among middle school and high school students, including drug use, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco products, and obesity. According to a study published in the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Report, two out of three students do not get sufficient sleep, and those students are much more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

The CDC report found that the time at which school began varied by state. Louisiana had the earliest school start time at an average of 7:40 a.m., and the latest average start time was in Alaska at 8:33 a.m. In Hawaii, Wyoming and Mississippi, no schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later, but in North Dakota, more than 75 percent of schools started at 8:30 or later. The CDC researchers wrote, "Among the possible public health interventions for increasing sufficient sleep among adolescents, delaying school start times has the potential for the greatest population impact by changing the environmental context for students in entire school districts."

The solution is not solely in the hands of the schools. The study encouraged parents to take steps to make sure their children get a sufficient amount of sleep. Setting regular bedtimes and waking times and removing video game systems and televisions from bedrooms can help make sure they are getting enough rest.

Some experts say that parents are fighting a losing battle when it comes to making sure their teens get to sleep. Changes in circadian rhythms during puberty can make it difficult for teens to fall asleep. Dan Flanders, a pediatrician and director of Kindercare Pediatrics in Toronto, told Forbes, "The inner clock that drives the sleep-wake cycle tends to push the natural bed time later and later as a child progresses through adolescence, so whereas an 'earlier to bed' approach may help to improve cumulative sleep times for a younger child, the adolescent body will naturally resist this approach. It seems that the practical way to enable sufficient sleep for an adolescent is by allowing for a later wake-up time."

Not only are teen's biological processes working against them, but their hectic schedules also play a role. Sports, other extracurricular activities and homework all combine to clutter their schedules and force them to stay up later to get everything accomplished.

In schools in the northern part of the country, earlier school start times affect all students – especially in the winter. Physician Chad Hayes told Forbes: "Another consideration is cold weather during winter months, especially for children who do not have adequate warm clothing. Earlier start times mean colder temperatures at the bus stop."

This may explain why schools in North Dakota and Alaska have the latest start times on average.

The CDC report provides ample reasons for those homeschooling families to ensure their kids get a good night's sleep before cracking the books. It's one more tool parents have for keeping their kids safe and healthy.

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