Study: Homeschoolers Are Healthier, Happier Than Public, Private School Students

A first-of-its-kind study conducted by the National Jewish Health (NJH) in Denver, Colo., reveals homeschoolers are happier, healthier and perform better academically and socially because they get more sleep.

For more than 20 years, researchers have studied the sleeping patterns of teenagers, especially high school students who wake up early for extra-curricular practices and then go to bed late after completing their homework.

Lisa Meltzer, a sleep psychologist and lead author of the NJH study, found students who are homeschooled sleep 90 minutes longer a night and wake up 18 minutes after traditional high schools have already started.

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Meltzer and her colleagues charted the sleep patterns of 2,612 students, including nearly 500 homeschoolers.

Outcomes of the study also reveal that 44.5 percent of students who attend traditional schools don't get enough sleep, which can result in lower grades, impaired driving, and behavioral problems.  

The study also found that more than 55 percent of teens who are homeschooled got the optimal amount of sleep per week, compared to just 24.5 percent of those who attend public and private schools. Whereas, only 16.3 percent of homeschoolers in the study said they don't get enough sleep.

Meltzer explains it's not as simple as teens opting to stay up late to chat on Facebook, or to spend time on homework or other activities, but rather, even without these distractions, "they physiologically can't fall asleep earlier anymore."

"[Sleep deprivation] impacts every aspect of functioning," Meltzer said. "Academics, and the ability to learn, concentrate and pay attention is all diminished when you haven't had enough sleep."

Despite the multitude of studies that show later start times for high school students improve academic performance and mood, the vast majority of school districts throughout the nation continue to maintain a start time around 7:15 a.m. This means that many students wake up or leave home headed for school at around 5:45 or 6 a.m. to catch the bus, a full two hours before their brains become alert, according to a 1998-2001 research study conducted by the University of Minnesota that was exclusive to two Minneapolis-area public school districts.

The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) study found that: "Teens who are sleep-deprived or functioning with a sleep debt are shown to be more likely to experience symptoms such as depression, difficulty relating to peers and parents, and are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs."

The Minnesota public school districts that changed start times from 7:20 to 8:30 a.m., and from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., found that students exhibited a "significant reduction in school dropout rates, less depression, and students reported earning higher grades." In addition, 92 percent of the parents who were originally concerned about the later start times, actually preferred them by the end of the study.

According to Meltzer's study, which is the first to include homeschooled students, "Adolescents need nine hours of sleep a night and if they're only getting seven hours, on average, by the end of the week they are a full ten hours of sleep behind schedule."

"Melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, shifts by about two hours during puberty," Meltzer said. "So, even if they wanted to get to sleep earlier, teenagers are battling biological changes in their bodies that are nearly impossible to overcome."

The CAREI study breaks this down by showing that, "typical youth are not able to fall asleep much before 11 p.m. and their brains will remain in sleep mode until about 8 a.m., regardless of what time they go to bed." Because the brain chemical melatonin, "which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until approximately 8 a.m., nine hours later. This secretion is based on human circadian rhythms and is rather fixed."

Meltzer also provides a list of suggestions on the NJH website that parents can use to promote their children's healthy sleeping habits. These suggestions include: removing cell phones, computers and video games from the bedroom; maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, even during weekends; and turning off all media 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

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