Why the school day should start later

Starting the school day later could help children and teenagers get more sleep.
Starting the school day later could help children and teenagers get more sleep. Photo: Robert Rough RNR

School reports came home for my twins in year 2 last week. Alongside the ticks for whether they’re performing “at target” for the three Rs, or behaving “consistently” in drama and library, the reports mark the number of days absent.

Oh dear. My seven-year-olds are pretty hardy so there’s only been one full day’s absence, thanks to a tummy bug. But there have been 18 recorded partial absences this year and I’m surprised it’s not higher.

This is mostly the result of arriving at school more than 10 minutes late, after roll call. It feels like I’m sheepishly shuffling into the office every other day, children in tow, to ask the nice office ladies for a late note.

Tired children find it harder to concentrate and behave.
Tired children find it harder to concentrate and behave. Photo: Shutterstock

“Reason for being late?” they ask. "Because the kids wouldn’t get out of bed, they read books by the heater when they were meant to be getting dressed, took half an hour to eat their toast and then couldn’t find their shoes," is what I want to answer. “Just late,” I say, as brightly as possible.

Every day I face the same dilemma. Do I play bad cop and yell at my children in order to get them out the door on time, regardless of how it might affect our relationship? Or do I put our loving connection first, even if the consequence is getting to school late?

Too often it’s the worst of both worlds, where I reach my breaking point and yell to instil some urgency when we’re already running late and need the late note regardless.

Thank goodness I have a husband who does his share so I don’t have to do this every day.

Some families manage mornings with ease but I know I’m not the only one who finds it a struggle. After I drop the kids off, I usually head across the road for a coffee fix before work. I often bump into fellow parents and compare war stories.

One harried mum told me the other day that at 8.20am both her daughters were in their pyjamas pushing the cat around the yard in a wheelbarrow.

Advertisement

The school’s perspective is that it’s important to get children to school on time because they’ll miss valuable information given in morning lines or by the classroom teacher before the lesson starts, and to demonstrate the importance of punctuality from an early age.

Of course, they’re right but my question is why school needs to start so early. My school, like many public schools in Australia, runs 9am to 3pm. I shudder to hear of schools with 8am or 8.30am start times and envy those parents whose children have a leisurely 9.30am start time. I think 10am to 4pm would be more like it, especially in high school.

Of course, I don’t think schools should change the way they run just because I personally can’t get my act together. I think we should shift the school day later because I’ve got science on my side.

Punctuality might be a good value, but there are more important things. First, children need to develop independence through doing tasks for themselves. Sure we get ready faster if I do everything for them, but that’s not helpful in the long run.

Second, children need a good night’s sleep. When children start school at age four or five, they still need 10-13 hours a night but might need as many as 14 hours, according to the Sleep Health Foundation. School-aged children aged six to 13 need nine to 11 hours but might need 12. Teenagers aged 14 to 17 need eight to 10 hours, but might need 11.

Despite a strict bed time and going to the local school, I usually have to wake the kids up in the morning if I want to get there on time. They naturally sleep much later on weekends.

If you run a sleep deficit, it takes a toll on your physical and mental health. There's also a vicious circle because children who experience sleep problems will also have behavioural issues and vice versa, according a study by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute from February this year. The research follows nearly 5000 Australian children from age four or five to age 12-13.

There is a wealth of academic research, including a study by the head of paediatric sleep research at CQUniversity in Australia, linking later school times with children and teenagers getting more sleep and that in turn linking to better behaviour and learning.

The case for a later school day is even more pressing in high school because most teenagers are naturally owls rather than larks, meaning their natural body rhythm is to stay up later and sleep in. The Sleep Health Foundation says this is exacerbated by teenage habits such as using technology late at night but it also occurs because circadian rhythms naturally shift later in adolescence.

How would a later school day work for the adults involved? Well teenagers could arguably get themselves to and from school but for younger children, 9am to 3pm is hardly ideal for working parents anyway. Most are already using a patchwork of before or after-school care, relying on grandparents or friends, or splitting the shifts in a two-parent family so one person starts early and the other starts late. A six-hour day is still a six-hour day whether it starts at 9am or at 10am.

I’m not a fan of the argument that we should extend the school day to suit the corporate world – children need unstructured play time and the opportunity to do extracurricular activities is valuable. We need out-of-school-hours care to be more widely available, but not as part of a compulsory school day.

School hours are never going to perfectly suit adults, so we may as well make sure they work for kids.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about life, work and money. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons

Comments