It’s no secret that most middle and high schools start too early in the morning. Research has been clear on this for decades. Major health groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association have issued calls to start middle and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Schools following their advice find that more students get more sleep—and less substance use, depression, absenteeism, truancy and even car crashes.
School leaders and community advocates all over the U.S. are trying to delay bell times, and many are succeeding. But too many others keep falling into common traps that waste time, energy and resources ― often for years.
1. Counting on Research to Change Minds
People change their minds and their behaviors primarily on the basis of their emotion and their pocketbooks—not reason and evidence. This is why deluging school officials with research rarely convinces them, or anyone, that schools need to start later. Having evidence in your pocket is necessary, but it is not enough by itself to get a community to delay bell times.
There’s good research everywhere. But it doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t read, heard and accepted.
For research to matter, it needs to come from a trusted authority. In this case, that usually means means school leaders themselves have to provide and defend it, and explain why they believe this change is the right thing to do. Educational materials about sleep and the impact of early school start times issued by school districts have much more impact on parents and teachers than materials from a Nobel Prize winner.
2. Mistaking Generic Support for Genuine Support
Many parents working for later start times insist that their superintendent fully supports a change. Perhaps they were given personal assurances. Perhaps the superintendent even formed a study group to look at the issue.
Unfortunately, talk is cheap. There is a huge difference between supporting the idea of a later start time and supporting a specific start time change for your district.
This is not surprising. When things get real, the trade-offs and negatives come to light. So do the precise ways the new schedule differs from the current one, which means change. And change is always hard, even good change. And so we do nothing, sacrificing the good (or the better) schedule for the perfect.
3. Not Setting a Goal
Successful districts often avoid announcing specific time changes, or even a selection of possibilities, until well into the change process. Instead, they start by setting a goal such as “no middle or high school classes before 8:30 a.m.,” “no student of any age will be required to attend class before 8 a.m.” or “the first bus pick-up shall not be before 7 a.m.”
Once a community accepts the goal, they can move from “should we do this?” to “how will we do this?” Believe it or not, that is biggest hurdle of all!
4. Getting Bogged Down in the Details Too Early in the Process
Community life revolves around school schedules. So it is no wonder that many community members worry about how any changes to school hours will impact things like work schedules, daycare, extracurricular activities, traffic and so forth. They also worry about how much such a change will cost.
We know from the many districts that have delayed bell times that most of these concerns never materialize. Others are temporary and resolvable. Responding to these concerns before the community is committed to later start times will only mean wasted time fighting futile and irrelevant battles. The time to address concerns is after a community has committed itself to healthy start times and is refining potential options.
5. Not Building Community Consensus
Many successful districts say getting consensus from a broad group of community stakeholders was a vital step early in the change process. Having school administrators, teachers, staff, health professionals, athletic directors, bus drivers, parents, and students hash out ideas together can help identify potential problems and concerns and generate viable options for consideration by the larger community.
6. Offering “No Change” as an Option
Many districts poll communities about changing schedules. This can be a great way to identify potential concerns. But offering “no change” as an option is a great way to kill change of any sort. Our natural “status quo bias” leads us overestimate the cost of any change while overlooking the cost of keeping things the way they are.
Assuming the district has already set a goal of starting school later, keeping the status quo has to be off the table. Again, since the goal has been set, the question is no longer whether to change, but how.
7. Accepting Cost Estimates as Fixed
Time and time again, a district that does not particularly want to change bell times will generate a sky-high figure about the cost of change, usually involving adding new buses. Interestingly, when these estimates are reconsidered by a district committed to the change— sometimes with the help of routing software and always with the help of creative thinking and political will—these numbers often if not always plummet.
In fact, there is almost always a no-cost (and sometimes cost-saving) way to start schools at later, healthier times. Finding it just means reassessing priorities.
8. Announcing Details Too Soon
Outreach through flyers, forums, webinars, and face-to face meetings are essential to help community members understand why changes are being made as well as to provide reassurance and find ways to mitigate or address negative or unforeseen impacts.
Ideally this outreach occurs before details about new schedules are announced. Cherry Creek, Colorado schools spent over 18 months meeting with stakeholder groups, conducting focus groups, and surveying parents, teachers, and students to pinpoint concerns. They used input from these groups to refine final schedules, compromising to address legitimate concerns. Only then was the time right for a public announcement.
9. Not Allowing Adjustment Time
Change almost always brings temporary logistical challenges and sometimes unanticipated consequences. Communities need time to rearrange their schedules to address these before implementing a new schedule.
In Southern Maine, for example, school leaders left enough time for schools to partner with local parks and recreation departments to create affordable before- and after-care options. Athletic directors had time to devise creative ways to reschedule games to reduce the impact of traveling long distances. School officials had time to develop flexible drop-off times for working parents.
10. Thinking Your District Faces A Unique Obstacle
Many districts say they would love to run schools at later, healthier times but that they have special constrictions that make change impossible. They say they are too big or too small, too rich or too poor, too urban or too rural, too focused on sports, too diverse, too homogenous, etc.
The reality is that districts of all shapes and sizes, all over the country and the world, have found ways to run at safe, healthy hours. While none of these ways is identical, each of them shares one critical element: they regard start times that allow students to get healthy sleep to be critical.
Follow Terra Ziporyn, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/terraziporyn