University of Kentucky study: Early school start times may be detrimental to young children

Teacher Alicia Coves, center, worked with kindergarten students in March at Cardinal Valley Elementary School in Lexington. Cardinal Valley students' school day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 2:35 p.m.
Teacher Alicia Coves, center, worked with kindergarten students in March at Cardinal Valley Elementary School in Lexington. Cardinal Valley students' school day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 2:35 p.m. Lexington Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky researchers have found that elementary schools' earlier morning start times could result in lower standardized test scores and poorer attendance.

UK associate professor of psychology Peggy S. Keller, who led the research team, said she found that was especially true for elementary schools with students from middle or higher income homes.

The research, drawn from 2011-12 data at 718 public elementary schools in Kentucky, was recently published by the American Psychological Association's Journal of Educational Psychology.

Data from schools in Fayette County were included; however, the schools were not identified.

The study found "elementary start times are associated with academic achievement," Keller told the Herald-Leader.

That's a significant finding because other research has focused on middle schools or high schools. Those studies found that later start times are associated with an increased amount of sleep and better cognitive functioning, she said.

"Our findings indicate that early school start times may be just as detrimental for young children as they are for adolescents," the research report said. "The relationship between earlier start times and poorer academic performance may be explained by the physical, behavioral and psychological ramifications of sleep deprivation."

In the study, student performance was measured by test scores that assessed reading, math, science, social studies and writing.

The researchers also looked at attendance rates, school rank, and the number of students who were required to repeat a grade.

Roughly half of the state's elementary schools start before 8 a.m., Keller said.

In Fayette County, most elementary schools begin at 7:45 a.m. Four — Mary Todd, Northern, Cassidy, and Harrison — start at 8:25 a.m., as do most high schools. Middle schools generally begin at 9:05 a.m.

The difference in scores associated with a one hour later school start time ranged from an increase of three to almost seven points.

Schools were ranked against other elementary schools.

When school started an hour later, school ranking improved 14 percentage points, and attendance was 0.32 percentile units higher, the researchers found. The attendance rate was the average attendance percentage across the entire school year.

Although Keller began the study on the premise that earlier start times would be a problem for students attending Appalachian schools and those with a higher percentage of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches, that was not the case.

"What we found ... was early start times were associated with worse performance in schools in more affluent districts — that is, those with fewer kids getting free or reduced-cost lunches," Keller said. "For schools with more disadvantaged students, later start times did not seem to make a difference in performance, possibly because these children already have so many other risk factors."

Keller said she hopes to replicate the Kentucky study in other states to see whether the finding about middle- and higher income students remains consistent. She said the study should also be completed in states with more racial diversity to see if start times matter equally.

Keller said the researchers don't have plans to ask districts to start classes later at elementary schools. But Fayette County Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Lu Young said the study could lead district officials to tell parents that "getting a good night's sleep really is advantageous to a child."

A routine bedtime, which includes limiting screen time at night, is important for children to have a good learning day at school, she said.

Young said the study confirms that early start times don't lead to improved student achievement, but it leaves other unanswered questions.

For example, she said, the researchers did not suggest an optimal start time.

"How early is too early?" Young asked.

Tim Feld is a parent from Lexington's Cassidy Elementary School, which is located in an affluent neighborhood and begins at 8:25 a.m. Feld is a former teacher turned attorney.

It sounds fantastic that test scores could be increased by later start times, Feld said. But he said that many parents have to be at work at 8:30 a.m. and would have to drop children off at school early anyway.

Therefore, he said, later school start times might not accomplish the goal of improving tests scores.

Keller said it is not easy for school districts to alter start times.

"My goal ultimately is to provide the school districts with information that they can use to determine what they want their policy to be," she said.