Skip to Content

Why do we go to school so early?

Going to school early in the morning is a common experience for kids and teens around the world. Most schools start between 7-8:30 AM, with some starting as early as 7 AM. This early start time has sparked much debate over the years about whether it is beneficial or detrimental for students.

The history behind early school start times

Early school start times originated in the late 19th century as a result of factory work schedules. Factories often started work early in the morning, so schools tailored their hours so children could get out in time to work in the factories. Even as child labor laws put an end to those practices, the early school start time persisted.

In the 1960s and 1970s, surging suburban growth led to busing students greater distances. School districts staggered start times to allow buses to make multiple routes. High schools and middle schools started earlier so buses could pick up younger students later.

These historical factors led to early school start times becoming the norm across the U.S. However, research since the 1990s suggests there are significant drawbacks to this schedule.

The science behind natural sleep cycles

Research shows that adolescents’ natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep early and wake up early.

During puberty, the body’s circadian rhythms shift. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, starts being released later at night. Teens don’t start feeling sleepy until around 11 PM. They need about 8-10 hours of sleep per night, meaning they are best suited to wake up at 8 AM at the earliest.

However, with most schools starting around 7:30 AM, teens have to wake up before their bodies are ready. This causes chronic sleep deprivation.

Studies estimate that only 15% of teens regularly get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep on school nights. The average is only 7 hours per night.

Impacts of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation can negatively impact teens in many ways:

  • Poor focus and concentration in school
  • Lower academic performance and grades
  • Increased risk of accidents from drowsy driving
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart problems
  • Higher rates of depression and anxiety

Sleep deprivation also reduces motivation, worsening problems with tardiness and absenteeism.

Benefits of later start times

A growing number of school districts across the U.S. have started delaying school start times to better align with adolescent sleep cycles. Some key benefits have emerged from this change:

  • Students get more sleep on school nights, closer to the recommended 8-10 hours
  • Better academic performance, including higher test scores and grades
  • Improved attendance and graduation rates
  • Fewer students reporting depression and other mood disorders
  • Decreased rates of tardiness and absenteeism

While there is some mixed evidence, most research indicates that later start times are beneficial for middle school and high school students. The impacts are most noticeable in disadvantaged students who face greater barriers to getting adequate sleep.

Challenges of shifting start times

Despite the benefits, many school districts face challenges in shifting to later start times:

  • Transportation logistics – School buses need to make multiple routes to accommodate tiered start times. This can be complex and costly to coordinate.
  • Impacts on sports and activities – After-school sports and extracurricular activities may end later in the evening with a late dismissal.
  • Effects on families – Modified schedules may not align well with parent work hours, complicating transportation needs.
  • Teacher contracts – Collective bargaining agreements sometimes dictate hours and restrict flexibility.

School officials also sometimes face opposition from parents, school staff, and community members. Many are hesitant about altering longstanding schedules.

Alternative solutions

Some schools implement alternatives to delaying the entire school start time:

  • Delaying start times just for middle and high schools, which allows elementary schools to start early and end early.
  • Beginning the day later a few days per week to allow students to sleep in some mornings.
  • Allowing flexibility for students to occasionally arrive late or start classes later if very tired.

Districts can also promote better sleep habits by educating students and parents about sleep health.


The early start times common in most U.S. middle and high schools misalign with adolescents’ natural sleep cycles. This contributes to widespread sleep deprivation among teens, which can negatively impact their health, academics, safety and wellbeing. While there are logistical hurdles, many advocates argue that shifting to later school start times would have significant benefits.

Some solutions, like delaying start times just for upper grades or building in flexible days, can allow schools to improve alignment with teen sleep needs without completely overhauling schedules. As research on adolescent sleep health continues to grow, finding creative solutions will be key for school districts seeking to reduce sleep deprivation while balancing complex real-world constraints.