Hit the snooze button: support grows for later school start times for pupils

California now requires all public high schools to start no earlier than 8.30am — and it's catching on

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 8 OCTOBER 2019. 
Students at Dubai College take part in a Positive Education session.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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Next week, public schools in the US state of California will start lessons at 8.30am by law, half an hour later than at present.

And experts reckon that decision makers in the state could be on to something.

There is growing support among researchers, teachers and parents, who say that later start times give children more sleep — and match office working hours better.

In the Gulf, where children start as early as 7.30am, support is also growing.

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We know that children who have a better sleep hygiene and duration have better memory and learning capabilities
Dr Arif Khan, neurologist

In Dubai, a new school that will open in September with a later start time of 9am has received more than 1,000 inquires for new pupils.

Bloom World Academy in Al Barsha South is enrolling about 15 pupils each week and is on target to meet its opening capacity of 250 pupils for the new academic year.

Operating a 9am-4pm school day, the IB curriculum campus will be the first in the city to offer a later start, with lessons getting under way more than an hour after most schools in the emirate.

Founding Principal John Bell said interest in the school had been staggering.

“We’ve had 1,028 inquiries and we’re doing about 10 tours of the campus each day,” he said.

“We had an open session for prospective pupils on Friday and 80 families turned up.

“It would be fair to say, of the pupils enrolled so far, about 75 per cent have transitioned from schools within Dubai.”

Mr Bell said opening a school that offers a "later start time and a flexible day for pupils" has proved attractive for families.

To date, the school has employed 55 teachers from more than 9,500 applications received.

California a test case for later school starting times

The new offering in Dubai comes as schools in California, US prepare to begin a later start time from July 1.

Last week, a new law was issued in the state that requires all public high schools to start no earlier than 8.30am — half an hour later than the American average.

The new guidance responds to research showing the effects of early starts and sleep deprivation on teenagers.

Dr Arif Khan, paediatric neurologist and founder of Neuropedia, a child neurosciences centre in Dubai, said sleep is an intriguing and complex phenomenon, with about “30 per cent of school-going children globally” having some form of sleep-related problems.

He said lack of sleep can cause irritability, deficient memory, memory lapses, hallucinations and impaired moral judgement.

The direct multi-system effect includes impaired immune system, increased risk of diabetes, tremors, risk of heart disease and growth suppression in children, among others.

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“Poor quality or quantity of sleep can have a direct effect on our mental and physical health,” he said.

“In children it can cause daytime sleepiness, deterioration in behaviour, excessive eating and poor learning.

“In older children, it can lead to depression, poor academic performance and a sedentary lifestyle which can lead to obesity.”

An advocate of overhauling the current school starting times in Dubai, Dr Khan said lifestyle patterns had changed over the years.

“Screen usage and digital sources of entertainment have increased massively, and this has definitely impacted the sleep patterns in children,” he said.

“We know that children who have a better sleep hygiene and duration have better memory and learning capabilities.

“A study from Seattle in 2018 showed that once the school start time was pushed back by an hour, children’s grades improved.”

Parents exhausted by school and workplace mismatch

With later school starting times, children would have a better and more natural sleeping pattern, allowing them to wake up with the sunrise rather than before dawn, when it is still dark outside, he said.

In Dubai, some schools start as early as 7.30am. For years, parents and school leaders across the city have called for a later start time for lessons to allow pupils to be more refreshed and alert during classes.

Iram Rizvi, a mother of two, said her two children, aged 15 and 11, leave home for school at 7am five days a week.

“I'm all for a delayed start,” she said.

“An extra hour of sleep in the morning does wonders for kids.

“Drawing from the experience of the remote-learning days [during the pandemic], my children could get some extra sleep as there was no commute to school.

“They felt so much fresher during the day, hence if schools were to push the start time to 8.30am, I would wholeheartedly welcome the change.”

Zeyna Sanjania has two sons aged 4 and 8.

“Both of them leave home at 7am to beat the school traffic. School starts at 7.30am [for the youngest] and 7.45am [for the oldest],” she said.

“I suppose we are lucky that we live quite close by to the school as it’s a 10-minute car journey without traffic."

The distance from their home was one of the deciding factors in enrolling the children at the school, so that they could minimise time spent in traffic and have enough sleep, Ms Sanjania said.

“I would most definitely appreciate a later school start because it really is important that kids get enough sleep during the night in order to have ample rest and let their brains develop healthily,” she said.

Health experts have issued guidelines for the amount of sleep children should have.

Ideally, young children aged 5 to 10 should have between 10 and 11 hours a night of sleep. For teenagers, about nine to 10 hours are considered adequate.

Updated: June 29, 2022, 6:04 AM
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