Commentary: 4 Approaches to Delay School Start Time

Adolescent sleep and school start time has continued to gain national media attention. Despite decades of research showing a clear link between delayed start time and student health and performance the majority of middle and high schools still begin before 8:30AM. Delayed school start times have been associated with “improvements in sleep duration, tardiness, absenteeism, suspensions, graduation, mood, health-related behaviors, and driving.” Biologically kids need 9 hours of sleep on to achieve their optimal performance and yet very few actually get this. So with all this research why do schools still start so early?

Historically, as the authors note “Numerous economic, social, and political pressures led to earlier school start times beginning in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1970s. This trend continued into the 21st century despite compelling evidence that early school start times (before 8:30 AM) conflicted with developmental changes in adolescent sleep patterns.”

The major health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Sleep Medicine have recommended that middle and high schools require attendance no earlier than 8:30 AM.

So what can be done to affect change? Susan Malone, in her piece, uses four behavioral economic principles to increase the likelihood of adoption and change.

  1. Change the Default Option: Call it lazy but people like to stick with whatever the default options happens to be. Changing the default has been shown to significantly improve retirement savings, vaccination and organ donation rates. Schools should be forced to opt-out of a later start time.
  2. Utilize Social Norms: People and organizations are like lemmings. When want to do what others are doing. For example, when people learn their peers are vaccinated, they are more likely to get vaccinated. The need to influence perception that later start times are the social norm.
  3. Improve messaging: People have limited attention spans and are already bombarded with too much information. Attractiveness, timeliness, and relevance are critical to getting the message across. School board elections, standardized test score reports, and teen driving fatality statistics all present opportune times to push the message of the  benefits of later school times.
  4. Counter Omission Bias: People fear negative outcomes from action more than negative outcomes resulting from inaction. To fight this tendency the negative effects of inaction (more car crashes & poorer test scores) need to be compellingly conveyed.

As the authors conclude, “Although delaying school start times can have a broad sweeping effect on adolescent health and well-being, reversing decades-long trends toward earlier hours requires novel strategies.” Hopefully the ones they present are implemented by non-profits and individual advocates for adolescent health and well-being.

The piece, Applying behavioral insights to delay school start times, was co-authored by Terra Ziporyn & Alison M. Buttenheim.

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