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Do Teens Need More Sleep or More Discipline?

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

I have always aspired to being a morning person, but I've always been lousy at it. I have woken up early most of my adult life, but that hasn't been my choice. My first job required me at my desk at 6 a.m., meaning that I had to have my fanny on the first Metro train of the day, which left Franconia-Springfield at 5:30 a.m. And then there were the kids.

For the longest time, I held myself responsible for this, assuming that if I just had more willpower, I could be one of those world-beating, early-rising superstars that are always getting profiled in Forbes. But as I've gotten older, I've come to accept the growing body of science that says that we all have individualized internal clocks, and they're not all set to go off at 6 a.m.

In fact, if sleep science has taught us anything, it's that teenagers, in particular, need their sleep however they can get it, which makes me sympathetic to Fairfax County's consideration of a somewhat radical shift in bell schedules that would mean that many high school students would get close to an hour of additional shut-eye in the morning. I used to be opposed to this kind of thing, believing that teenagers, in general, could use a little more discipline in their lives. But eroding learning standards for the sake of teaching a tough-guy lesson seems like overkill.

Of course, that argument is still out there. I can't imagine any teens are being forced to go to bed at midnight by sadistic parents. The kids most likely to be hurt by the changing schedule seem to be the ones who are already living disciplined lives: Mucking up after-school activities for kids who have made big commitments to part-time jobs or sports or music is unfortunate.

(As an aside, the battle over start times is happening in a typically Washington way, with well-organized advocacy groups with cute acronyms emerging. In this battle, it's S.L.E.E.P. against W.A.K.E.)

Of course, my kids aren't old enough to have this problem (in fact, I'm counting the days until they start sleeping until noon on the weekends), so I'll have to kick it to you: Are later start times the smart move? (Of course, if you're a Fairfax parent, don't just sound off here; there will be several meetings over the course of the next month on the topic.)

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  February 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Schools , Teens
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In theory this should be fine but as a mother of rising kindergartener, I wasn't thrilled at the idea of getting my child off to school at 7:50. I kind of enjoy our relaxed mornings. Plus having her home at 2:30 did not sound so charming either.

But overall I think it is a good idea. The people I think who will have issues with it are going to be the HS (the ones who are supposed to benefit from this schedule change). I think the after school sports, activities, and jobs will suffer. I also think that is a lot to jam in the day. Even though they can stay up later, they really can't gather with friends, do sports, jobs and activities at night. So they will be packing even more into an already tight schedule. It would be interesting to see if they actually study more.

I filled out the online survey yesterday. I was actually thinking d**n those 7:50 start times. I still voted for it. I don't think it would help my elementary school student because we are usually up at that time anyway.

Posted by: foamgnome | February 12, 2009 7:29 AM | Report abuse

I fully supported this idea until I actually saw what the revized schedule would look like. The elementary kids would be starting before 8 o'clock in the morning, which seems awfully early for little kids. I could deal with that, but our local middle school would not start until 9:40! I'm pretty sure this would lead to widespread truancy, since most parents of middle-schoolers work and are not home at 9:30 am to make sure their kids get on the bus.

Posted by: floof | February 12, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

btw, where is the online survey? I looked for it on the ffx website and couldn't locate it.

Posted by: floof | February 12, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

The information about the online survey came in an email. I think I got four emails yesterday about it. If you want to do it, I would do it soon. It closes Feb 28.

Posted by: foamgnome | February 12, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Here, elem school starts at 8 and ends at 3. A VERY long day if you want any activities at all. The middle school starts about 8:30 and then I guess the high school is at 9 - we already have the schedule you are discussing.
I'm not sure, if the school day is the same, how it impacts sleep. I do know that the theory is that elem school kids wake up so early, they might as well get off to school. Well, tell that to my first grader, who we can't get up in the AM (he hardly gets up by 8 on the weekend).
I don't know what the answer is. I do know that the elem school day is too long. I don't know about high school. I know they were trying to stagger the starts so that they could use the same buses for at least two schools to save some money on transportation. I guess that's another discussion.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | February 12, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Where I grew up, it was HS, elementary schools, then middle school. So for HS, I had to be at the bus stop by 6:30 AM - which didn't allow for much sleep at all. But in middle school, school didn't start till almost 9:30. Which also required my mother to pay a neighborhood HS student to babysit my brothr for 2 hours each afternoon - the difference between when the elementary school students got home and when the middle schoolers got home. I imagine that today, where many families spread out their children a bit more, reversing those start times will have quite an impact - on students, who, as Brian pointed out, don't all have the same internal clock. On parents, who may have depended on HS students for their after shcool care. And on the HS students, who may depend on that babysitting money to pay for their activities and/or college expenses. I'm not sure what the answer is, but as with anything else, there isn't one answer that's right for everyone, and the schools need to make decisions that fit the economics and social realities of the situation.

Posted by: JHBVA | February 12, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

I grew up on the current Fairfax Co schedule, but have essentially the proposed one here south of Atlanta. I am not a morning person, but I never had a problem with the 7:30am start time at my HS (and I actually had to be there at 7:05 my senior year for an advanced math class). I am NOT looking forward to my son starting Kindergarten next year. The bus stops at our house for pickup at 6:30am. That is insane! School starts at 7:50, and is only about 3 miles away. So, perhaps needless to say, I will be driving DS to school each morning (hopefully we can find a carpool), though I will have him take the bus home. What I see is reduced time for HS students to have significant afterschool jobs, and a real time crunch for sports and marching band, especially in the winter when it gets dark at 5:30. We're also on "year-round schools" down here, which I'm also not a fan of either. I spent my summers working, saving money for college. How many employers (besides things like fast food) are willing to employ teens for only 8 weeks (never mind the current economic conditions)?

Posted by: DrCath | February 12, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I have no opinion on the HS start times, I can see both sides of the arguement. But I am bothered that they will be changing my 1st grader's hours to 9.20 - 4. Little kids are up early, why not send them to school early and let them out early? Right now he goes 8.20 - 3 which seems good. We get excited when he sleeps past 7 on weekends, school starting at 9.20 will be a debacle.

Posted by: BurkeMom | February 12, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Floof, this is the link:

I'll have one in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in HS. I'm voting NO for the proposed hell schedule. It will be a nightmare for our family since we often depend on the older kids to watch out for the younger ones after school.

Even if you don't have HS aged kids, but have to travel during rush hour through Fairfax County, this new plan will affect you. Be prepared to share the already overcrowded road with a bunch of very alert teenagers.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | February 12, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

DrCath: My son's school is at 8 - the bus picks up at 6:55, but my husband walks him to school - and they leave about 7:30. Of course, with a 3 mile distance, it doesn't seem likely that you could walk, but the same thing happened last year when my DS was in a kindergarten annex, I drove my son every day. I guess you just do what you need to do...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | February 12, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, that's pretty much our plan- I figure the bad carpool lines are in the afternoon, so we can at least avoid those. Part of the crazy hour is due to the school's deciding that everyone should be there early enough to eat breakfast. Sorry- I can do that at home! We have the same schedule with pre-K, which is a bit further away- DH gets DS up at about 7:15, they leave at 7:45 to be there by 8.

To me, a later end time for the younger kids makes sense- it means less (or perhaps no) time in afterschool care before parents get home from work. Older kids (10+ maybe?) are okay to be on their own an hour or two before mom or dad get home. 5-7 yr olds are not. My 2 are 4 yrs apart. When DS#1 is older, I'd like to be able to have him watch the younger one a few times a week, if I can't work my schedule to be home in time. But with the elementary kids getting home by 2:45, and the MS/HS getting home after 4:30, that's not an option at all.

Posted by: DrCath | February 12, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

The major issue with having your older kids get home after your little ones is that you can't have, say, a sixteen year old daughter watch your ten year old son if you're working til 5. You also couldn't hire a high school student to watch your little one for an hour or two after school -- if you didn't have a sixteen year old daughter. Once again, this places an unfair burden on working parents, particularly those likely to use family members (siblings or older cousins) to watch little ones while mom works since daycare may be prohibitively expensive.

Posted by: Justsaying4 | February 12, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Please. The whole idea that oh, it's so prohibitively expensive for a few hours of child care for your child after school is, well, not quite the real thing. If one can't afford the child care, then well, perhaps opening up your own service where you watch other people's kids is a better alternative than where you are working, right? That means that working watching other's kids is SO lucrative - that perhaps one is in the wrong profession if one cannot afford 2-4 hours of child care after school.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | February 12, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

"My first job required me at my desk at 6 a.m., meaning that I had to have my fanny"

That explains a lot.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | February 12, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but it can be expensive to round up someone to watch your children for a few hours a day after school. It's not a full-time position and most likely you'll have to pay to pull them away from some other activity that most likely offers more hours and more pay.

Anyway, why should you have to pay anyone to watch a little kid when you have an older child? That's what brothers/sisters are supposed to do.

I'm an AM person and my poor children were too, so consider the source.

Posted by: RedBird27 | February 12, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

"My first job required me at my desk at 6 a.m., meaning that I had to have my fanny"

That explains a lot.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | February 12, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: jezebel3 | February 12, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"Anyway, why should you have to pay anyone to watch a little kid when you have an older child? That's what brothers/sisters are supposed to do."

What if the older child is on a high school sports team, or is in the band, the National Honor Society or another club that meets after school? Or has, oh I don't know, a job after school?

Or do you prohibit that, because watching the younger sibling takes precedence?

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Atlmom, quick estimate on childcare cost for me - (2 kids) * (2 hours per day) * ($10 per hour) = $40 per day or about $800 a month. That's a mortgage payment for many, not chump change.

Besides the childcare consideration, there are a lot more factors involved here. NoVa has the worst traffic in the nation and the difference in time it takes to drive a few miles in Fairfax at 2:30 as compared to 4:30 could be as much as a half hour or more. From the commuter, to the parent, to the teacher, to the business that relies on teenage employment, you can bet they will show their presence at the hearings and I expect tempers to flare. What Fairfax County is doing is nothing short of proposing a lifestyle change for hundreds of thousands based on the premise that a few teenagers could benefit academically from more sleep in the morning. Yeah, right. I think it has something to do with money, just as money has almost everything to do with the type of folks that live here.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | February 12, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I think those who propose this idea wildly underestimate the delicate work/life/commutes from heck/child care balance that MOST families with kids in Fairfax County face everyday. While those with a parent at home may not bat an eye at "tinkering" with school bell schedules, many with two outside working parents will be negatively impacted by such change(disclosing that my husband is currently home with our third (an infant), but will return to full time outside employment). It is also insane to have middle school start at 9:40! Any working parent with a 12 year old boy may reasonably wonder how he will get on the bus regularly, OR will he spend almost 3 hours in morning care BEFORE school starts? Pity the 6th period teachers. I strongly suspect that highschoolers in this area will quickly readjust to later bedtimes to accomodate the later starts on jammed packed activities/work/homework.(Really,didn't anyone go to college?)Thus, the ENTIRE reason for the proposal goes out the window.

Posted by: Hopeful7 | February 12, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, in Howard County, MD, it's always been high schools starting/finishing earliest, then middle schools, then elementary schools - at least since our kids have been in school.

We're the first stop on the bus route, so the high school bus picks up at 6:30 am. That means the teenagers have to be awakened by no later than 5:45. The middle school bus comes at 7:30, so it's a 6:45 wake-up call. We don't have an elementary schooler any more, but when we did the bus picked up at 9 am for a 9:15 start.

That means we had to have someone home - no high school students available - until 9 or later, which meant that one of us couldn't plan on starting the work day until at least 9:30, every school day. Not a lot of jobs can tolerate that schedule.

I'd prefer to flip elementary and high schools. None of our kids are "morning people" so the high school kids aren't fully awake before second period, but the elementary kids were always bored waiting around until 9.

On the other hand, the county Rec & Parks department offered before and after school care at the school, so we could drop the elementary schoolers off as early as 7:30 and pick them up as late as 6. So that part - daycare - has never been a problem.

(For extreme comparison - the one that's now in college tries to schedule classes so that she has nothing before 11 am. On days when she has no classes, she sleeps until 6 or 7 - pm!)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"I strongly suspect that highschoolers in this area will quickly readjust to later bedtimes..."

How late are their bedtimes now? Check Facebook, etc. Very, very few of my kids' friends go to bed before midnight/1 am on a school night as it is. I don't think this will make it any later.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I fully agree with you that most teens have very late bedtimes already - some of that is biology, some of it is technology, and some of it frankly is cramming in every thing they cram in order to compete for college in this area -- including a sport, or three, an AP class, or 6,(with requisite crushing homework), volunteer work, church activities, an instrument or two, jobs, etc... none of that is being aliviated by the proposal-- it is just being pushed backed an hour or so. Is this really about high school start times, or more about how we live life here, and what we expect from our kids?

Posted by: Hopeful7 | February 12, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Since my high school starts at 7:25, its an absolute chore to drag myself out of bed, especially while working two jobs and taking two AP classes out of 4 total (because my first job starts at noon). With that said, I love being able to wake up at noon on a gorgeous Saturday. However, I also enjoy being able to get home by 11 am, enjoy a delicious home-cooked lunch, and (on some days) catch a nap until two thirty in order to leave for my second job. The change in schedule would completely interrupt all of that. I'd have to quit my jobs, get home later in the day, just in time to do homework, only to catch maybe an extra couple of hours of sleep which I'll probably waste studying for my AP Stat test or my friends Facebook statuses? (I'll admit it, I've often been up at 1 am glued to the internet machine)

No thank you. Getting up at 5:30 am may be a chore, but I can usually shake off the bedbugs and enjoy a mostly productive day. To my night owl body clock, and my late night shenanigans, there is no difference between 5:30 am and 9:30 am. It wouldn't lead to mass truancy, since I know plenty of people who can be truant at any time of day, but I know that I would not be one to wisely use my extra morning hours, and neither would mot high schoolers. We'll still be dragging our fannies into classes at 10 am. The only difference is that we'll be staying up till 5 am instead of till 1 am.

Posted by: palipride47 | February 12, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I strongly suspect that highschoolers in this area will quickly readjust to later bedtimes..."

How late are their bedtimes now? Check Facebook, etc. Very, very few of my kids' friends go to bed before midnight/1 am on a school night as it is. I don't think this will make it any later.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 1:26 PM

Well then cry me a river if they want to go to school a little later. If they need more sleep, try going to bed earlier.

Posted by: janedoe5 | February 12, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

"Or do you prohibit that, because watching the younger sibling takes precedence?"

ArmyBrat, don't you think that's just little unfair? All families have different arrangements and frankly I think there are worse lessons for a kid to learn than the fact that they are accountable and responsible to their families first. Sure, ideally, all kids would be able to do everything they would like to do, but who amongst us gets to do everything we want to do? We all belong to the family and we all make sacrifices for the others in our family - in some families that includes caring for younger sibilings.

I do have to agree with Janedoe - high school students need to start learning how to manage their time and schedules. A later start time would likely just lead to an even later bedtime. Most jobs start before 9 these days. My father grew up on a farm, up at 5, take care of the cows before breakfast, go to school, come home and do necessary farm work and homework, generally go to bed shortly after the sun went down. Fun? No, but part of real life too!

Posted by: moxiemom1 | February 12, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

moxie - no, I don't think it's unfair at all. I apologize for violating On Parenting Rule #1 - bragging about our unremarkable children - but DD gets up at 5:45 in order to catch the bus at 6:30. School starts at 7:15 and ends at 2:30. If it's in season, she has practice or a game until 5 or 6; if not, she sometimes has National Honor Society meetings/tutoring/choir rehearsals etc. Two to three nights a week she works from 6 - 10 pm. (During sports season she doesn't work evenings, just weekends.) Throw in homework and a little free time and she gets to bed between 12 and 1 most nights.

You want me to tell her to quit/cut back because her mother and I don't get home until 5 and we want her to watch her sister? I'm sorry, I think THAT's unfair. Make DD quit the team? No; I'm a firm believer in team sports as an important part of education - ESPECIALLY for girls. Make her quit choir/NHS (which requires a minimum number of service hours)? No, choir's something she does for fun; she usually enjoys the service hours and NHS helps those college applications. Make her quit the job? No, I want her to have some "skin in the game" as it were - she has to save half her money for her college fund; it's important for her in my mind (and I think she manages her hours pretty well). Cut back on homework time? No, grades are important.

So, I think that asking my daughter to give up that part of her life (and things that benefit her future) to watch her little sister is somewhat unfair. And I don't think it's unfair of me at all to feel that way.

(Trust me - DD has to do a LOT of chores, etc. around the house. She gets no free rides from us. But we do try to give her opportunities.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

"Well then cry me a river if they want to go to school a little later. If they need more sleep, try going to bed earlier. "

janedoe - that's missing half the point. It's not just HOW MUCH sleep they get; it's when they get the sleep. Much research has shown that because of the hormonal changes from puberty, it's somewhat natural for teens to go to sleep later and get up later. (There are always exceptions.) Telling them to go to bed earlier doesn't address this problem. See, e.g.,

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I guess that I just do not understand. Why do some have to be at school at 7 something and others not until 9 something? What do the start times have to be so varied?

Posted by: ishgebibble | February 12, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

"You want me to tell her to quit/cut back because her mother and I don't get home until 5 and we want her to watch her sister? I'm sorry, I think THAT's unfair."

AB - I think both you amd Moxie are right. You have your particular circumstances and make your choices based on these circumstances. But what about a family who, for example, cannot afford after school daycare at all. So perhaps in that case, the older teenager's job is babysitting the younger sibling for a couple of hours a day, as part of his or her contribution to the family? I think each family has to make decisions based on its unique situations, and sometimes, it may be that a teenager has to give up an extracurricular to help out. I don't see anything inherently unfair about this.

Posted by: emily8 | February 12, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Well, perhaps I am missing half the point. And in fact, I don't disagree with the notion that later start times are great for many high schoolers. But changing start times for high schoolers has implications for students of other ages as well.

I have friends in Ffx Cty whose disabled preschooler would go to school from 1:00-4:20 and then ride the bus from 4:20-6pm IF THERE'S NO TRAFFIC FROM 4:30-6:00. So if we look at the issue abstractly, I favor the idea in general. But today is not a day I can look abstractly at this idea. There are negative repercussions all over this thing. Middle school students would not have after school activities. High school students in band and sports would have to get up just as early, because I have heard that the coaches/band directors are going to move practice to the morning.

ArmyBrat, I don't see how your high schooler's life would be improved by a late start schedule such as the one proposed by Ffx Cty. From what I hear, it makes things harder for kids as involved in things. If you need to work, there are fewer hours after school available for working. So again, while the idea that teenagers by and large could use more sleep is not itself a problem for me, the question was--are later start times a smart move. And today's post was prompted by a specific proposal by a specific school district. And my answer is--that proposal is not a smart move.

Posted by: janedoe5 | February 12, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

"Why do some have to be at school at 7 something and others not until 9 something? What do the start times have to be so varied?"

So that they can re-use the school buses to reduce costs. Right now, the buses make a run, pick up high school kids and take them to school. Then they make another run, pick up middle school kids and take them to school. Then they go back, pick up a load of elementary kids and take them to school. They take them home in the afternoon in the same order.

That way, they only need X buses, and you don't have 1st graders and 11th graders on the same bus at the same time. If you wanted all schools/all grades to start at approximately the same time, you need more buses and/or you deal with K-12 kids on the same bus.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 12, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

"And I don't think it's unfair of me at all to feel that way."

Army Brat, now you know how I love you, but what is important to you is not always what's important to another family. That's all I'm saying. I too would like my child's life to roll out like your daughter's life, but I won't knock someone who doesn't/can't make the same choices. Sometimes life is terribly unfair, not a bad lesson for kids.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | February 12, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Thank you ArmyBrat1! This all makes a lot more sense (DD is not in school yet).

I grew up in the olden days when all the kids were on the bus at the same time (little kids sat up front, big kids in back) so this was never an issue.

Just "wow" to balance the needs of so many!

Posted by: ishgebibble | February 12, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

The town I'm in has staggered starts like that as well. The elementary school starts at 7:55 AM, and the middle and high schools start between 8:30 and 9, I think. That's so the buses can drop off the elementary kids and then go pick up the middle/high schoolers, and we don't need so many of them running around the county roads. The schedule doesn't seem to be bothering my older daughter (first-grader) thus far, although my husband and I have grumbled more than once about wishing she would learn to tell time earlier when she was in kindergarten because she'd still be up with the birds on the weekends when we were trying to sleep in! The later starts don't seem to have a negative effect on the fact, our schools here are among the top 5 in the county! Not to mention that since there'll be a five-year difference in grades between our kids once the younger daughter starts school (they're 4 3/4 years apart), I'll be able to get back home after taking the younger one to school and making sure the older one is ready for school! No hooky-playing in our house....

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | February 13, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

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