In the past year, Holliston High School has joined the debate about whether a change in school start time would relieve high levels of student stress.
Recent data produced by the American Psychological Association has shown a dramatic increase in high school student stress levels. Towns like Ashland are acting fast by shifting their start time next year in hopes of alleviating unwarranted stress. However, Holliston’s superintendent, Dr. Bradford Jackson, is not completely on board with the concept.
“I have to tell you, I understand the research, but I remain a little skeptical that anything but a significant change in start times would really be effective,” Jackson said. “I think that there are some practical considerations around a significant change in start time that have to be taken into account.”
In recent years, student stress levels at HHS have reached an all-time high.
According to the 2014 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) administered at the high school, “36% of HHS students reported that ‘life was very stressful’ within the past 30 days, with 57% of HHS seniors reporting high levels of stress.”
These elevated levels of stress have lasting and harmful effects on student health and sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends that teenagers sleep eight to ten hours per night. A survey administered by the Superintendent’s Task Force on Student Stress at Holliston has found that the majority of students are getting between five to seven hours of sleep per night. A contributing factor to short nights could be the early start time at HHS.
According to the NSF, “Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence — meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm.”
Late bedtimes make it extremely difficult for students to fulfill the recommended hours of sleep per night, especially if they have to wake up at 6:00 am.
Many researchers and members of the community believe that a shift to a later school start time could play a pivotal role in helping to solve this problem.
“The hard research is showing that it improves attendance, moderates tendency for impulsive and risky decision making ,and reduces car accidents,” said Alexandra Businger, a local parent and representative on the Superintendent’s Task Force on Student Stress.
She went on to say, “It makes teens less prone to drug and alcohol use, depression and suicide; it has been shown to improve academic achievement and reduce athletic injuries. So I think ultimately, it is a short term change that everyone would have to adjust to and probably get educated about, but in the long term I think it would benefit the health of the community.”
The change in school start time has large support from the students as well. Senior and student representative on the school committee, Kathleen McShane is a strong advocate for the shift.
“I think a change in start time would definitely help because it would allow students to get more sleep and lower the stress they feel,” said McShane. “There’s the argument that if you push the start time back, students will just go to bed an hour later. But I don’t think that’s true; in fact, studies presented at the school committee have proven that’s not true. If kids could get another hour of sleep, they would be much more calm and focused during the day.”
While there is clear evidence that students would benefit from a later school start time at the high school, there are challenges the community would have to face in order to implement such a change.
After-school activities and sports would be pushed an hour later, creating scheduling problems for practices and games, teachers would need to find new daycare options for their children, and parents would have to adjust their work day schedules to accommodate their kids.
The new start time would impact other schools in the district as well.
“We would either need another fleet of buses or we would need to change the Placentino start time. It has a system-wide impact. It has a lot of dominoes here…” said Dr. Jackson.
When asked if a change in school start time is the best measure to be taken to relieve students of stress, Dr. Jackson added an interesting point.
“One of the things that I am still trying to work out in my head is if students will still have seven hours of school, three hours of homework, three hours of extracurriculars, and two hours of screen time. Does it make more sense to focus on making their awake time more productive than it does just shifting their sleep times? A new start time is not a magic pill.”