Reorganizing School Schedules: Start Times, Light, Scheduling

With sum­mer draw­ing to a close and schools start­ing up for a new sea­son, what bet­ter time to take a look at how schools uti­lize research about the brain in deter­min­ing the tim­ing of the flow of school. Not only cur­rent brain research, but com­mon sense, tells me the fol­low­ing areas need tweaking.

  • - School start times and sleep
  • - Expo­sure to nat­ur­al light
  • - Sched­ul­ing of classes

Left to your own devices, what time would you go to sleep each evening and what time would you wake up? As adults, it is like­ly that exter­nal respon­si­bil­i­ties deter­mine your wake time, and the matu­ri­ty of age guides your sleep time. More often than not, thanks to a sound night’s sleep, you wake men­tal­ly refreshed and pre­pared to face the day. Teenagers are sim­ply out of luck in this realm.

Mela­tonin is respon­si­ble for our body rhythms, also known as cir­ca­di­an rhythms. These sleep/wake cycles are direct­ly influ­enced by our expo­sure to light. As dark­ness sets in, mela­tonin is released, pro­mot­ing the urge to go to sleep. Teenagers usu­al­ly release mela­tonin at lat­er times in the evening so they tend to fall asleep lat­er and wake up later.

Notice, there is no “ear­ly” in that last sen­tence, and the result is that teenage cir­ca­di­an rhythms are often out of synch with school start times. The Nation­al Sleep Foun­da­tion has found that school start times should be altered to accom­mo­date teenagers, with the antic­i­pa­tion that bet­ter qual­i­ty sleep will pro­mote health­ful pat­terns, result­ing in more ben­e­fi­cial learn­ing environments.

Light and dark do more than impact our cir­ca­di­an rhythms. Light also influ­ences our moods. SAD (Sea­son­al Affec­tive Dis­or­der) results from insuf­fi­cient expo­sure to sun­light in the fall and win­ter months. Research has shown that nat­ur­al light has a con­sis­tent and pre­dictable pos­i­tive effect on stu­dent performance.

When my sev­en­teen year old was in mid­dle school, he astute­ly not­ed that dur­ing the best hours of win­ter day­light, stu­dents were kept indoors. While it may not be prac­ti­cal to retro fit school build­ings so that nat­ur­al light per­me­ates every class­room, when cou­pled with the ben­e­fits of exer­cise, the ben­e­fits of every stu­dent hav­ing out­door recess would go a long way toward alle­vi­at­ing SAD and wak­ing up neurons.

Okay, so they are out of bed and in school, though they may be yawn­ing through the morn­ing. Now they have to fol­low the sched­ule of class­es. Research has shown that in mid­dle schools the best type of class sched­ule is one that incor­po­rates longer seg­ments of time. How many schools do you know of that tend to sched­ule class­es that last longer than 45 minutes?

Not only could the dai­ly class sched­ule have flex­i­ble chunks of time, but the year­ly school sched­ule could also be designed to bet­ter accom­mo­date the diver­si­ty of stu­dent learn­ers. The Cen­ter for Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion takes an in-depth look at What research says about reor­ga­niz­ing school sched­ules in this 2006 posting.

If you know of exam­ples or have expe­ri­ences that sup­port or refute these sug­ges­tions, please share them! And please note that my per­spec­tive is based on teach­ing mid­dle and high school stu­dents for the past ten years, and also hav­ing taught at schools that had flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing blocks.

For addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion relat­ed to these topics:

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it exist­ed as a pro­gram”. She is the K‑8 Com­put­er Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­o­gy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­niz­er of Dig­i­tal Wave annu­al sum­mer pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & The Brain conferences.


  1. Laurie on October 6, 2008 at 4:32

    Hi !
    I am con­cerned about the high school sched. where our daugh­ters attend. They go from 8:30am to 12:06 with only one 4 minute break. This is to meet required gov. hours and acco­mo­date 2 weeks off twice a year (and sum­mer hol­i­days). After­noons are about 2 1/2 hours with no for­mal break. Snacks, espe­cial­ly for ath­let­ic kids, dia­bet­ics, etc, water,bathroom breaks and just a men­tal break would seem to me to take more than 4 min­utes. These stu­dents are high achiev­ers and com­plain of an inabil­i­ty to focus deeply for this long. Is there evidence/research that shows what sort of time spans are opti­mal for class­room learn­ing and when our minds and bod­ies needs a break, and for how long?
    Thank you so much!

  2. Laurie Bartels on October 10, 2008 at 9:15

    Hi Lau­rie,

    In Mel Levine’s book, A Mind at a Time, he dis­cuss­es sched­ules and notes “Changing class­es every fifty min­utes may lim­it how well stu­dents are able to con­sol­i­date much of what goes on dur­ing a class.” He goes on to sug­gest that block sched­ules and oppor­tu­ni­ties to spend sev­er­al months focused on one sub­ject area, “are like­ly to allow for more com­plete diges­tion of con­tent. Few­er and longer class­es also help.” (p. 332–333)

    The Nation­al Mid­dle Schools Asso­ci­a­tion has a research sum­ma­ry about flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing (, the gist of which sug­gests that longer block peri­ods per­mit more vari­ety in types of activ­i­ties utilized.

    At the high school lev­el, here is a link ( to The Principals’ Part­ner­ship Research Brief on High School Sched­ules, which con­tains links to a large num­ber of resources also sum­ma­rized on the site. I have not read all of them, but you will prob­a­bly find much use­ful infor­ma­tion in the links.

    From all that I have read and writ­ten, and from my expe­ri­ence teach­ing, regard­less of how class­es are sched­uled, pro­vid­ing snacks, access to water, and breaks that engage the body phys­i­cal­ly, all pro­vide impor­tant pos­i­tive ben­e­fits to every­one engaged in the school­ing process.

    Hope you find some of this helpful!
    Lau­rie B.

  3. Laurie Bartels on October 10, 2008 at 9:17

    p.s. The link to the Nation­al Mid­dle Schools Asso­ci­a­tion is very long, so here it is as a tinyurl:


  4. Laurie Bartels on October 17, 2008 at 3:22

    For rea­sons about which I am not clear, the tinyurl is not going to the cor­rect page. 

    When using the URL for the Nation­al Mid­dle Schools Asso­ci­a­tion research sum­ma­ry, please be sure to add “pdf” to the right of the dot.

    Cheers, Lau­rie

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