Criminologists Analyze Impact of School Start Times on Children

Dr. Alex Piquero, Ashbel Smith Professor of criminology and associate dean of graduate programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, discusses the pros and cons of early school start times with doctoral students.

When teenagers complain that their early morning high school class is ruining their lives, they might not be exaggerating.

A University of Texas at Dallas professor and his colleagues have proposed a theoretical model that outlines the association between school start times and delinquency and substance abuse. The analysis, published online in April in the journal Crime & Delinquency, is supported by existing empirical studies that show later start times might reduce delinquency and substance abuse. 

“For quite some time, criminologists have overlooked the connection between school start times, juvenile delinquency and drug use,” said study co-author Dr. Alex Piquero, Ashbel Smith Professor of criminology and associate dean of graduate programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences. “This has precluded multidisciplinary collaborations between criminologists and other social and health scientists that might further illuminate emerging policy initiatives.”

The researchers linked early school start times to anti-social outcomes through two major pathways. In the first pathway, they propose that later school start times lead to more sleep, which results in better self-control and academic performance — both of which help prevent delinquency and substance use. In the second pathway, researchers presume that later start times result in later release times from school, which would reduce time spent in unstructured socializing with friends, an activity that has been shown to contribute to delinquency and kids getting into trouble.

A large body of research supports the notion that more sleep improves academic performance and reduces daytime sleepiness. As a result of such research, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends middle and high schools should not start classes before 8:30 a.m. to ensure proper cognitive functioning, academic success and overall well-being for adolescents.

Piquero cautioned that while the model has merit, implementing later start times might not guarantee reduced delinquency and substance use.

“With a later school start time, it’s possible some kids will simply go to bed later, and the amount of sleep deprivation will stay the same. How much sleep a child gets is dependent on family life and schedules, jobs, day care and other issues. And also how much time they spend on social media,” he said.

Piquero said more research needs to be done to improve both anti-social behavior and educational outcomes. Criminologists should join the conversation more frequently, he said.

“Like many social and health problems, bringing researchers, policymakers, teachers and concerned citizens to the table in an effort to put into practice evidence-based policies that improve educational outcomes and reduce anti-social behavior will offer society many long-term benefits,” he said.

Dr. Daniel Semenza of Rutgers University-Camden is the corresponding and lead author of the study. Additional authors are from Florida International University, The University of Texas at San Antonio and Saint Louis University.

Media Contact: Melissa Cutler, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4319, [email protected], or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].