Is Early Morning Seminary worth it? This is a question I ask myself every year. At the kick off for seminary, the seminary director explains each year that the reason we do Early Morning Seminary is to teach the kids they can do hard things. That’s the same reason we do manufactured Trek reenactments, too. But is doing hard things a good justification in and of itself? I have seen fairly severe impacts to my kids as they’ve gone through 4 years of seminary. The sleep deprivation at a crucial growing period when they are supposed to be achieving grades that enable them to get a good college education seems like a high price to pay for daily religious education from amateur volunteers.

First, what are the goals of seminary? I’m not entirely sure what all the goals are (aside from the aforementioned teaching kids they can do hard things), but I assume they include things like:

  • Improving church retention rates among youth
  • Giving youth the strength and support to resist daily temptations.
  • Creating love for the scriptures and good religious habits.
  • Integrating religion into our young people’s daily lives, not just on Sundays.
  • Encouraging missionary preparation.
  • Building social structures of support for the kids.

There are different options available for seminary instruction depending on where you live:

Release Time. This only exists in Mormon-heavy areas where the church has an agreement with the local school to allow students to take seminary as an elective class. Classes are taught by employees of the Church Education System. On the upside, there is no incremental sleep deprivation. On the downside, students who are particularly active in sports or electives have to choose between their academic or extracurricular pursuits and seminary. Students who choose seminary are missing out on some opportunities. There are trade-offs.

Early Morning Seminary. In areas where release time is not available, this is the option that is allowed. Stakes furnish volunteers to teach from the membership. Classes are held, usually at a local church or ward member’s house, for 45 minutes each morning before school starts. On the upside, kids aren’t sacrificing electives to take seminary, and they still get the daily habits and social support network which is possibly even stronger because they are often attending with a more cohesive group of peers. On the downside, this means that kids have to get up as early as 5:00 or even before, every single day. We have found that our kids’ grades suffer due to the lack of sleep (or other bad teenage habits, hard to say), and that they usually fall asleep after school and sleep until dinner, pushing homework time back to the later evening. Additionally, driving kids to and from seminary in the morning is a burden on parents who also experience sleep deprivation in their work lives.

Home Study / Online. This is theoretically available anywhere, but is generally not allowed if either of the other two options is available. It requires special approval that is usually not granted. On the upside, students can do the work at their own pace, covering the same materials the other students do usually in a fraction of the time. They may actually have more personal engagement with the scriptures since they have to work alone. On the downside, because it may not be done daily it isn’t building a daily habit, and the social support structure of peers is not there. Students may meet weekly to review the work.

For our family, the greatest negative impact from seminary is due to sleep deprivation, and it affects both the kids and the parents. While parents can get by on less sleep than kids, usually requiring only 7.5 to 9 hours a night, teens need 9-10 hours a night. With a 5:00 wake-up time, mine haven’t been capable of getting anywhere near that.  The schedule dictates around 7 or fewer hours of sleep (maximum) for both kids and adults. For the kids, they make up for it by collapsing on the couch into a post-school coma, then drowsily awaking to eat something and rush bleary-eyed through their homework until they collapse into bed each night, only to start it all again the next morning.

Why is it early morning? Why not a more reasonable hour?  This is mainly done before school to accommodate students who have after school activities, and it just so happens that the American school system is an early-starting one. There also seems to be some not insubstantial contingency of LDS folks who think keeping farmers’ hours makes us better people or builds character. They are often the same ones who yearn nostalgically for the days of corporal punishment in the classroom and who walked to school every day in the snow uphill both ways with a heavy cello strapped to their backs.

One school in Edina, Minnesota experimented with school start times to see if they could counter the sleep deprivation problems.

It shifted the high school’s start time from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and then asked University of Minnesota researchers to look at the impact of the change. The researchers found some surprising results: Students reported feeling less depressed and less sleepy during the day and more empowered to succeed. There was no comparable improvement in student well-being in surrounding school districts where start times remained the same.

This wasn’t the only study.

One 2010 study at an independent high school in Rhode Island found that after delaying the start time by just 30 minutes, students slept more and showed significant improvements in alertness and mood. And a 2014 study in two counties in Virginia found that teens were much less likely to be involved in car crashes in a county where start times were later, compared with a county with an earlier start time.

What time should kids be starting school, ideally?

Bolstered by the evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 issued a strong policy statement encouraging middle and high school districts across the country to start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to help preserve the health of the nation’s youth.

Mormon kids attending Early Morning Seminary are at a particular scholastic disadvantage.  How serious an issue is sleep deprivation for teens? Pretty darn serious as it turns out. Medical studies show that teen sleep deprivation is linked to all sorts of negative effects including:

  • Depression and suicidal thoughts – a study shows that every missed hour of sleep results in a 38% increase in feelings of hopelessness and depression and a 58% increase in suicide attempts. Teens are already at heightened risk for these.
  • Acne and pimples, according to another study
  • Dependence on medications
  • Increased likelihood of substance abuse
  • Obesity
  • Learning problems due to lack of concentration
  • Mood swings – impatience and yelling due to fatigue
  • Unsafe driving due to drowsiness
  • Less resistance to colds and flu

Enough about the problems. Here are two practical solutions that would help, although not cure the problem entirely.

  • Make online seminary an option for any kids who prefer it.
  • Make early morning seminary an every-other-day thing so that kids aren’t as sleep deprived every single day. Consider going to a twice a week schedule only, creating a hybrid of home (or family) study and classroom.  In our household, missing seminary for the day means 1.5 extra hours of sleep, waking up at 6:30 instead of 5:00.

Those are the best solutions I have. What do you think? Is it worth the sleep deprivation to get the benefits? Are there other solutions you would propose? How has early morning seminary impacted your life or your kids’ lives for better or worse? Do you feel it’s worth the side effects?