Wednesday / May 29

Should Schools Start Later? How Students use Free Time, Media, and Sleep Opportunities

Dear Colleagues,

I’ve been thinking about the issue of time that keeps popping up in a number of national studies, surveys, and professional positions.

In a nutshell, the issue involves recommendations to start the school day later in the morning at the middle and high school levels…and how this contrasts with the time that adolescent students have out-of-school, and how they typically use that time.

But let’s begin with the “end in mind.”

National Associations Say: Start Middle/High School @ 8:30 AM or Later

In August 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement calling on schools to begin the middle and high school day no earlier than 8:30 AM so that students can get at least 8½ hours of sleep per night. Part of their rationale involves research showing that adolescents’ typical sleep biorhythms are set for them to go to bed between 12–1 AM and to wake up between 8–9 AM. [This compares with the sleep biorhythms for adults that are set between 11 PM to 6:30 AM.]

Significantly, according to an August 7, 2015 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report (that surveyed 39,700 schools—representing 26.3 million students—during the 2011-2012 school year), the average middle/high school in the US starts at 8:03 AM, and only 17.7% of these schools begin their day at 8:30 AM or later.

Citing a number of health and youth-at-risk surveys, the CDC report stated that only 31% of adolescents across the country get enough sleep on school nights.

The implications? According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprived adolescents “carry a significant risk for drowsy driving; emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence; heath complaints; tobacco and alcohol use; impaired cognitive function and decision-making; and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics.”

The CDC report added the risks of being overweight, developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and being less likely to get enough exercise.

Given all of this, some national sleep groups have gone one step further—suggesting that middle and high schools should begin the day at 10 AM. Of course, this would push these schools’ dismissal times to 4 or 5 PM!

Critically, the AAP and CDC reports and recommendations make an implicit assumption: that a later start to the school day will result in adolescents getting the right amount of sleep at the right time of the night.

But, in a “parallel universe” this assumption may have some holes.

What Adolescents Do with their “Free Time

When adolescents are not in school during the week, they typically engage in many diverse activities:

  • Sports, music, clubs, or other extracurricular activities
  • Socializing or relaxing
  • Taking care of siblings (or other family members) or doing chores
  • Working at after school jobs (some to financially help their families)
  • Traveling from school to home (which may involve long distances in some rural areas)
  • Completing their homework
  • Watching TV, listening to music, interacting with other media

In the latter area, a report published earlier this month (November 3, 2015) by Common Sense Media investigated the media use of 2,658 adolescent “teens and tweens.”

This report detailed the following primary results:

  • Teenagers spend nearly 9 hours a day involved in some type of media—with music and TV remaining the favorites. Pre-teens (aged 8 to 12) spend about 6 hours a day in one or more media-related areas.
  • 67% of teenagers listen to music every day, between 58% and 62% watch TV, and 45% use social media every day.
  • Boys are more involved in video games. Male teenagers spend an average of 56 minutes a day gaming, while girls spend only 7 minutes a day. Girls spend more time on social media or reading than boys.
  • Students from poverty backgrounds have less access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than non-poverty students—but spend more time on these devices when they own one.
  • African-American teenagers spend more time in media-related interactions than other ethnic groups (averaging 11 hours and 13 minutes per day). This contrasts with Caucasian teenagers who average 8 hours and 48 minutes in media-related involvements.
  • Half of the teenagers say they watch TV or use social media either “a lot” or “sometimes” while doing their homework, and 76% say they listen to music while working. Half of the teens say that listening to music helps their work, while only 6% thought that it hurt their work.

While adolescents are clearly multi-tasking—being engaged in the after-school activities noted above at the same time that they are media-involved and media-connected—there are two concerning issues.

The first concern involves the last Common Sense Media survey result indicating that 50 to 76% of the teenaged respondents are media multi-tasking while doing their homework.

With most middle and high school homework focused on applied and higher ordered thinking activities, this multi-tasking may be directing students’ attention more to their “social worlds”…and less to the cognitive learning processes needed to learn and master the skills embedded in their homework.

The second concern relates to the fact that some adolescents are media engaged not just late at night, but in the middle of the night. Indeed recent 2015 studies in Great Britain and Scandinavia have found that 25% or more of the adolescents there keep their smartphones and other devices on during the night, and that they frequently are woken up by, for example, friends’ texts or social media prompts.

Knowing that this is occurring here in the US (as discussed in a 2014 New York Times article), we come full-circle back to the issue of how much sleep our adolescents need and how much sleep—due to their own social media habits—they are not getting.

So…What Do We Do?

With the broad prevalence of technology (see below), it is crucial that parents/guardians:

  • Supervise and help manage their children and adolescents’ access to media hardware and software (especially for young children up through their “tweens”); and
  • Teach them, over time, the skills needed to self-manage their own media behavior during their tween and teen years.

While this has always been the case with television, this now must generalize to the other types of media available to students.

Critically, this management and education to self-management needs to occur at a very early age.

A recent Pediatrics study (Kabali et. al, 2015) of 289 parents of 350 children from an urban, low-income minority community found that 75% of the children owned their own mobile device at age 4, and about half multi-tasked (sound familiar?)—using more than one device at once.

Additional results indicated that:

  • 20% of 1-year-olds in the study owned a tablet computer
  • 28% of 2-year-olds could navigate a mobile device with no help
  • 28% of parents said they used a mobile device to put their children to sleep (!!!)

And so, early parent education is needed, but—in order to be accomplished—educators (and others) need to help parents by providing training materials and realistic, workable approaches.

Schools also have a responsibility here.

Schools need to provide kindergarten through high school training to students in the areas of media courtesy, prosocial interactions, self-management, and conflict resolution.

This is especially true as schools are:

Using computer, smartphone, and bring-your-own-device programs for instruction;

  • Responsible for addressing cyberbullying and other social media disruptions (even when they occur out-of-school) if they impact the school climate or students’ behavior in school; and
  • Invested in helping students to come to school physically, emotionally, and academically prepared to fully benefit from the instruction and other learning opportunities available to them.

And so, now we are ready to complete the circle.


There is no debate that adolescents need more sleep than they are getting, and that their biorhythms have set their “sleep clocks” forward to wake up between 8 and 9 AM each morning.

However, our adolescents also are spending excessive amounts of after-school time engaged in different media interactions; they are not managing their time well in this (and other) regards; and they are further undermining their own (needed) restful sleep patterns by keeping their devices on and near their beds—resulting in, for example, 3 AM text, video, and snap-chats.

And so…any recommendations to begin the school day later for adolescents need to be accompanied by simultaneous recommendations for school and parent programs and strategies to help manage young students’ media devices, and to teach older students how to self-manage their personal devices.

Said a different way: It makes little sense to start the middle and high school day later if students are defeating the purpose by staying up even later and/or waking up due to 3 AM text or other media messages from/to their peers.

The recommendations above demonstrate the value and importance of multi-disciplinary conversation, collaboration, and collective thinking. Too often, policy recommendations or decisions are made in a uni-disciplinary context. When this happens, the recommendations may make sense on the surface, but they are likely to be faulty in reality.

Students grow up in a multi-faceted and ecological social, biological, educational, familial, and extracurricular world. Educational policy recommendations due to factors in one area (in today’s case, biological) should not be made without understanding the functional realities that exist in others (social, familial, and extracurricular).

Who knows? If middle and high school students get enough sleep—because they learn and demonstrate self-discipline relative to when they go to sleep and how they are going to stay asleep—then maybe an 8 AM start (when most middle and high schools start now) will have no adverse effects.

At the same time, we still need to factor in bus and other transportation schedules, how far our students are traveling to school, and what will happen to the elementary school schedules if we change the middle and high school schedules.

Life is complex. In the end, we do the best we can…accounting for the variables and conditions that we can control.

As always, let me know, at any time, how I can help you in your mission and work.


Howie Knoff      

Dr. Howie Knoff

Director, Project ACHIEVE

Little Rock, AR


Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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