Joseph Buckhalt, Ph.D., a Professor in Counseling Psychology in the Auburn University College of Education, has for many years been interested in sleep research. Since 2012, his main input has been through a blog published by Psychology Today, a widely-read trade magazine that has been around for decades and has a strong web presence. Buckhalt is especially interested in ideal school start times for youth and adolescents in terms of their physical, emotional, and intellectual wellbeing. The Start School Later movement advocates for restoring traditional school start times, an idea with which Buckhalt agrees. However, he is presently focused on how school policy intersects with research on the topic. He was forced to examine that intersection when his own blog posts became part of a controversial episode involving the Boston Public Schools.
Basics of sleep science
“To begin with, let’s examine how dramatically sleep patterns in our young people have been impacted by cell phones and screens,” he said. “Too many children and teens have their phones on all night. These screen lights delay the release of melatonin, which negatively impacts sleep.”
Research done by Buckhalt and Mona El-Sheikh in Auburn University’s Child Sleep, Health, and Development Lab has shown that the factors most important to healthful sleep are duration (how long you sleep), quality (how well you sleep), and regularity (going to bed and getting up at the same time on a regular basis).
“The 2017 Nobel Prize for Medicine went to three scientists for their discovery of Clock Genes,” Buckhalt explained. “Through their research and what has followed, we know that the main biological timer is in our mid-brain, but that we also have genetically driven timers in all parts of our bodies. Disruption of regular patterns in our routine can affect many aspects of our daily lives. For example, appetite is regulated by ghrelin, a hormone produced in the gastrointestinal tract, and leptin, produced in fat cells. Both are regulated during sleep. When sleep is irregular, those both get dysregulated and weight gain can result. Even your immune system is negatively affected by insufficient sleep. So the basic message is to keep on a schedule. All sorts of disruptions happen if you get off schedule. We see this in jet lag, among many other places.”
Heavy cell phone use during the day and night is associated with poor sleep in young people, and especially in those young people lacking strong parental supervision, which is closely associated with poverty. And since poor sleep has also been linked to impairment in cognitive functioning, it is now thought to be one of many contributors to low academic achievement by many children, especially among those living in poverty.
Controversies surrounding school start times
As more and more stories are coming out about the benefits of starting school later (SSL), school districts around the U.S. and Canada have begun examining their bell time policies. Buckhalt points out that these are always local decisions.
“There is plenty of evidence that sleep deprivation causes cognitive and emotional challenges,” he explained. “There is also evidence that today’s young people are sleep deprived. So naturally concerned parents and educators see later bell times as a practical solution with broad benefits. My role up until a few years ago was as an advocate and a blogger, but in 2015, with other researchers, led by Dr. Peggy Keller, a professor at the University of Kentucky who had done a post-doc at Auburn with Dr. El-Sheikh, we published an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled ‘Earlier school start times as a risk factor for poor school performance.’ We expected that earlier start times would relate to lower academic achievement in high school students, consistent with what others had found. But we also saw that lower test scores were associated with earlier start times for elementary students, something no one else had studied. The problem is that most school districts who move to start school later do so for high schools and sometimes middle schools. But, in order to run two separate bus routes, the elementary schools start earlier, sometimes much earlier. So one problem is addressed, but another problem shifts to the younger age group.”
Once the article appeared, Buckhalt heard from parents in a Minnesota school district that was in the midst of a bell time debate, and the parents were concerned about their elementary students. But Buckhalt was also contacted by a prominent SSL advocate from Minnesota who was consulting with the school district. She questioned the validity of the study the research article was based on. Ultimately, the report done for the school district disparaged the study, and advocated for later bell times for high schools, and earlier start times for elementary students.
“I was not at all pleased, and I wrote a blog post describing how this policy debate was being ill-served by some advocates selectively using research to argue for their positions,” Buckhalt said. “Dr. Keller subsequently published another paper showing that early start times in elementary schools were associated with more behavior problems, including those leading to discipline referrals. These findings, too, were challenged, this time in a letter to the editor of the journal where the study was published. The critics asked that additional analyses be done. When those concerns were addressed in further analyses, the same conclusion was reached: children at elementary schools with earlier start times had a higher incidence of behavior problems.”
The intersection of research and public policy
“Policy decisions must be made on the basis of the best available evidence, which is always complex, sometimes contradictory, rarely clear cut, and almost never pointing exclusively in one direction,” Buckhalt explained. “And there are always economic and political forces driving public policy. Think of today’s debate on climate change. Scientific evidence is challenged by forces such as the coal industry. The same was true in the debate about whether smoking was bad for you, or whether television violence was linked to actual violence.”
Similar to what happened in the Minnesota debate, Buckhalt and his colleagues were contacted last fall by concerned parents when Boston began debating later school start times. After much study with all constituencies (including parents, teachers, and administrators), the Boston Public Schools superintendent announced that starting with the 2018-19 school year, middle and high school start times would be generally after 8:00 a.m., with a few starting as late as 9:30 a.m. But for elementary schools, there was much greater variability, with a few starting at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m., but most starting at 7:30 or earlier. Naturally, this upset families with young children who started early, with many wondering how they might pay for daycare necessitated by the earlier dismissal times – some as early as 1:15 p.m.
“It appears that optimal bus routes must have been the deciding factor for when a particular school started since the distribution of start times was not consistent with grade,” Buckhalt said. “MIT was hired to optimize the bus routes for the system, and they picked up children based on neighborhood rather than by grade. In some cases, parents of elementary children were facing a two hour earlier start time than in 2017-18 and many were quite unhappy with that prospect. Some felt that while earlier parent feedback had indicated considerable approval for later start times, they were blindsided by how early some elementary schools would start and the host of problems associated with those earlier start times.”
After the outcry, Boston Public Schools backed off its plan for new start times for 2018-19 and the superintendent announced in a letter to parents that they would reevaluate the entire situation.
“What happened in Boston this fall was a setback for SSL,” Buckhalt concluded. “I do not know how this will all end, and like most public policy debates, it is terrifically complex. The SSL movement has been successful in convincing many school districts to start high schools and even middle schools later, and that is very helpful. But later bell times are not a silver bullet for sleep deprivation. Late afternoon and evening school-night extracurricular activities are also probably responsible to some degree for children not getting enough sleep. Clearly, parental control in enforcement of regular sleep schedules, and use of cell phones and other electronic devices at night are needed, but in many homes these disciplines are not present. The fact remains that a vast majority of children are likely not getting sufficient sleep for optimal performance in school. School districts must often do their best with widely varying situations. Later school start times are a step in the right direction, we know that. But my involvement in these debates has been a very interesting lesson in how research and school policy intersect. Stay tuned.”