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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.

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4 Responses

  1. Laurie says:

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


  4. 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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