The Cracker Barrel: Sweet Dreams

Research findings have revealed that encouraging additional sleep by way of delayed school start times significantly increases class attendance, reduces behavioral and psychological problems, and lowers substance and alcohol use.

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A dear friend recently loaned me a copy of Dr. Matthew Walker’s book titled “Why We Sleep,” published in 2017 and chock-full of cutting-edge info about the nature and power of sleep and dreams.

In the book, Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at Berkeley, vividly demonstrates the vital importance of sleep while exploring the explosion of scientific discoveries about it that have occurred over the past two decades.

Of particular importance to any parent or grandparent of teenagers is his concern about the connection between sleep and learning. Early in the book, Walker recounts the many experiments by sleep researchers that confirmed a natural circadian shift forward in teen years of one to three hours; a phase of life in which kids simply stay awake longer at night and need to sleep later in the morning.

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A century ago, schools in the United States started at 9 a.m. Now, Walker claims, more than 80% of public high schools begin before 8:15 a.m., and some 50% of those start before 7:20 a.m. - a situation he labels as lunacy.

“Surely this is not an optimal design of education. Nor does it bear any resemblance to a model for nurturing good physical or mental health in our children and teenagers. Forced by the hand of early school start times, this state of chronic sleep deprivation is especially concerning considering that adolescence is the most susceptible phase of life for developing chronic mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and suicidality.”


Growing scientific evidence now supports the wisdom of later school start times. One of the first test cases happened right here in Minnesota, in Edina. When start times were shifted from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m, a surprising change in academic performance occurred.

The year following the shift, the average verbal SAT scores of the top-performing students went up from 605 to 761, and math scores from 683 to 739.

“While some have contested how accurate or sound the Edina test case is,” writes Walker, “well-controlled and far larger systematic studies have proved that Edina is no fluke. Numerous counties in several U.S. states have shifted the start of schools to a later hour and their students experienced significantly higher grade point averages.”

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He goes on to say: “It is clear that a tired, under-slept brain is little more than a leaky memory sieve, in no state to receive, absorb, or efficiently retain an education.”

Research findings have also revealed that encouraging additional sleep by way of delayed school start times significantly increases class attendance, reduces behavioral and psychological problems, and lowers substance and alcohol use.

Yet something even more profound has happened in this ongoing story of later school start times - something that researchers did not anticipate: the life expectancy of students increased.

“The leading cause of death among teenagers is road traffic accidents,” says Walker. “When the Mahtomedi School District of Minnesota pushed their school start time from 7:30 to 8:00 a.m., there was a 60 percent reduction in traffic accidents in drivers sixteen to eighteen years of age.”

An even more dramatic change occurred in Teton County, Wyoming, when a shift from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m. resulted in a 70% drop in teen accidents.


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Craig Nagel, Columnist

“If the goal of education is to educate, and not risk lives in the process,” Walker concludes, “then we are failing our children in the most spectacular manner with the current model of early school start times. ... When sleep is abundant, minds flourish. When it is deficient, they don’t.”

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

Opinion by Craig Nagel
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