Canadian schools reluctant to embrace later bell times despite research

Ten to 18-year-olds got an extra three minutes of sleep for a 10-minute delay in school start time

A wave of international research that suggests delaying high school start times would have health and academic benefits for students has not yet crested in Canada.

Several individual boards and schools have embraced the growing number of global studies suggesting that early start times are at odds with adolescents’ natural sleep patterns and can hamper both their academic progress and mental health.

But Canadian authorities have yet to join their international counterparts in recommending later bell times, and researchers are only starting to look at the impact of school hours on Canadian students.

Still, some school boards are considering putting the idea to the test.

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One school board in northwestern Ontario has already done so and declared the experiment a success.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board moved to “harmonize” school start times three years ago, pushing the start of high school class times back as much as an hour in some cases.

The board’s director of education, Sean Monteith, said he’d been championing the shift for years, saying there were particularly compelling reasons to put the policy in place at a school board that covers two time zones and caters to many students in far-flung Indigenous communities.

Early start times coupled with long commutes, he said, were taking an obvious toll on students.

“Kids were failing out. Kids were dropping out. They weren’t doing well,” Monteith said in a telephone interview. “To continue to allow the same historical practice to go on at the expense of kids dropping out was just simply unacceptable.”

Students at the board’s six high schools now start their day at 9 a.m., up to 50 minutes later than they used to before the policy went into effect in 2014.

The practical benefits emerged immediately, Monteith said, adding the move allowed the board to improve course selections by co-ordinating e-learning opportunities across the vast territory his schools serve.

Monteith said the success of the shift is evident in the declining dropout rates and rising attendance figures that he’s observed in the past three years. But the true test will come at the end of the new academic year when the board will have a chance to see whether the new approach has improved graduation rates for the first cohort to start class later throughout their high school days.

Extra sleep a plus for students

Monteith’s results would come as no surprise to researchers who have studied the effects of extra sleep on student performance.

Numerous studies from the United States and Europe document not only pervasive sleep deprivation among teens, but the effects that deprivation has on numerous aspects of their lives.

Lack of sleep has been linked to challenges with everything from academic performance to obesity to mental illness.

The evidence was convincing enough to prompt the American Academy of Pediatrics to name lack of sleep as a public health issue for teens and specifically name school start times as a factor.

Last year, a team of McGill University researchers set out to assess the state of school start times in Canada and their potential impact on student sleep patterns.

The study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, showed an average start time of 8:43 a.m. among the 362 schools sampled. They also found that the later the opening bell rang, the more time students spent in bed.

Study participants aged 10 to 18 got an additional three minutes of sleep for every 10-minute delay in their school start time.

Lead researcher Genevieve Gariepy said those extra minutes all help bring the school day more in line with the average teenaged biological clock, which operates differently from those of either adults or younger children.

“What happens is our circadian rhythms…get shifted by about one or two hours when puberty starts. So adolescents tend to just fall asleep later and wake up later,” she said. “Adolescents will typically fall asleep around 11 or midnight and wake up around eight hours later.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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