Research from Susan Malone: How to get middle and high schools to start later

January 22, 2018

Decades of research on adolescent health conclude that starting school early – before 8:30 a.m. – is at odds with teens’ developmental needs and changes. Delayed school start times are associated with better sleep; less tardiness, absenteeism, and suspensions; improvements in mood and graduation rates; and safer driving.

“School start times are an important, modifiable factor that impacts multiple aspects of adolescent well-being,” said Susan Malone, a senior research scientist at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing.

But despite the evidence encouraging middle and high schools to start later, progress has been slow. Numerous factors, from the logistics of school buses to preserving time for after school activities, have kept schools starting earlier than is healthy for adolescents.

A new article, coauthored by Malone and published in the journal Sleep Health, says that accelerating progress will require new approaches incorporating strategies that influence how school policy decisions are made. The researchers look to the field of behavioral economics and how it can help schools to adjust their start times using several strategies that influence decision-making processes.

For instance, later start times should be the default option for districts, which would require a school that wants to start earlier to “opt-out” of the default. “Opting-out” increases the burden for the less desired option, in this case school start times before 8:30 am. “Opt-out” approaches have been effective in increasing organ donation and vaccination. In addition, later school start times could be promoted as the social norm, given that people or school districts want to do what they see others do or what they perceive as the norm.

Finally, the authors recommend clearly depicting information that conveys the negative consequences of inaction – for instance, graphically depicting the increase in car crashes due to early school start times and contrasting this with the relatively smaller financial and logistic impacts of the time change.

The article suggests that understanding how people make decisions can help schools to adopt strategies that benefit their students – even when the scientific evidence of later school start times is already overwhelming.