Amber Henstridge, a Grade 11 student in Northwestern Ontario, struggled to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make the hour-long commute to her high school. She often missed school or arrived late. But ever since her principal shifted the school's start time to 9 a.m., 45 minutes later than it was previously, Ms. Henstridge has noticed a difference.
"My attendance has been better. I'm not as tired. I have time to eat breakfast. … I'm more awake. I'm more ready to learn than I was before," said the 16-year-old, who attends Red Lake District High School.
The change at Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, now in its second year, was part of a districtwide move to give teenagers more time to rest and a better chance at learning. The issue of delaying start times in high school has been raised in several Canadian school districts. One high school in Toronto used to start classes at 10 a.m.; it has since closed its doors.
New research from McGill University backs up the practice of delaying school start times, and adds to a growing body of evidence that sleeping in has many benefits, ranging from improved physical and mental health to increased alertness in the classroom.
A study published online in the Journal of Sleep Research found that about one-third of Canadian students, between the ages of 10 and 18, did not meet sleep recommendations, and about 60 per cent reported feeling tired when going to school in the morning.
According to the Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines, children between 5 and 13 should get nine to 11 hours a sleep a night, and teens between 14 and 17 should get eight to 10 hours of sleep.
The published study suggested that starting school half an hour later would give teenagers an extra 10 minutes of sleep, making it more likely that they get the minimum amount of sleep they need and are less likely to feel tired at school in the morning.
Lead author Geneviève Gariépy, a post-doctoral student at McGill's Institute of Health and Social Policy, said in an interview on Monday that as teenagers go through puberty, their natural circadian clock gets delayed, meaning it's biologically more difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Waking up before 8 a.m. can be a struggle, she said.
"When you're asking kids to show up at school at 7 or 8, it's very difficult. You're asking them to be at school, awake and focused when their body is actually supposed to be sleeping," Ms. Gariépy said.
The researchers collected data on school start times for about 30,000 students from 362 schools that participated in a cross-national survey. The survey is conducted every four years and done in collaboration with the World Health Organization.
Start times in Canadian schools can be as early as 8 a.m.
Ms. Gariépy said a growing body of research shows that adolescents who don't get enough sleep do worse academically, are more likely to develop physical health problems and suffer mental-health issues, such as anxiety.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in 2014, recommending that middle schools and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. The academy also sounded the alarm on insufficient sleep in adolescents as a public-health issue that affects the academic success of students, as well as their health and safety.
"We can talk about sleep hygiene, like putting your phone away, putting your screens away and having a routine. But if we think that the underlying problem is really biological, we need to address it as a society and think about the scheduling that we're cramming around our kids," Ms. Gariépy said.
She added: "Adolescence is a time when you're setting up for the next step in your life. If you're not doing well at school … it just has lifelong implications."
Sean Monteith, the director of education at the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, said his board looked to the research when it decided to change start times for its high schools. His district has struggled with attendance issues and students not graduating.
High school used to start around 8 a.m. in the district. Making changes to have the school day start later took work, Mr. Monteith said. The school board had to contend with bus pickups, for example, and worked with bus companies to change schedules.
The initiative is only in its second year, but Mr. Monteith said the board has already noticed improvements in attendance and student engagement in classrooms.
"At the end of the day, it was about levelling the field and giving kids who are already at risk for a number of factors a chance. This was one of those structural changes that was required," he said.