The Teacher's Inbox
Why Your Teen Needs More Sleep
Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Every morning, I greet teenagers filing into my classroom. Many appear more zombie than human. Shuffling their feet while stifling a yawn, struggling to keep their heavy eyelids up. When a student's behavior is out-of-character, I begin my investigation with, "How did you sleep last night?" The response is a predictable “not well."
“Broadly speaking, it might be argued that the most fundamental requirements for healthy growth and development in young children include a) loving support and protection by parents/caretakers, b) adequate nutrition and c) adequate sleep.”
I beg all parents to help their children get a good night's sleep. Teaching an entire class of well-rested, alert teenagers would be a true dream come true. But my motivations in writing this post are much greater than making my job in the classroom easier. Sleep plays a crucial role in healthy adolescent development.
Negative Consequences of Persistent Sleep Deprivation in Adolescents
Tons of research exists on the adverse effects of insufficient sleep. The negative effects impact all, children and adults. Lack of sleep is bad for everyone, especially adolescents. The young brain goes through many changes in the teenage years. Note the many consequences of missing out on shuteye for teens:
More car accidents. One study, detailed in JAMA Pediatrics, found teens with less than 6 hours of sleep were 21% more likely to be involved in a car accident (and 55% on the weekends!)
Greater risk for developing emotional regulation disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Sleep deserves the same emphasis as physical activity, nutrition, and hygiene. Poor sleep worsens mental health disorders. Mental health disorders can make sleep difficult. It becomes a vicious cycle, a "chicken or the egg" question.
What Happens During Teen Sleep?
The workings of a sleeping teenage brain highlight the importance of shut-eye. While they doze, the brain is busy at work. In early childhood, the brain capitalizes on sleep by laying down millions of neural connections. The purpose is over-engineering the brain. As the child grows, the brain prunes unnecessary pathways while strengthening others. This pruning process intensifies in the teenage years.
Matthew Walker, UC Berkely neuroscientist and author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, describes this process:
"Since the first round of brain wiring is purposefully overzealous, a second round of remodeling must take place. It does so during late childhood and adolescence. Here, the architectural goal is not to scale up, but to scale back for the goal of efficiency and effectiveness. A (somewhat) generic brain becomes even more individualized, based on the personalized use of the owner" (Walker, pg. 88-89).
This is a vital process in brain development. Sleep is complex and phasic, alternating between NREM sleep (non-rapid-eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement). Dreams occur during the REM phase when memories solidify. This sleep phase fuels creativity. Most REM sleep occurs in the early morning hours. When we wake up a few hours before optimal sleep, we are missing out on the REM phase. Statistics reveal over 1/3 of adults do not get adequate sleep. Worse yet, over 80% of American teens get insufficient sleep.
How to Get Teens Enough Shut-eye
There are two remedies for this sleep-deprivation crisis:
later school start times for middle and high schools
improve sleep hygiene
Research suggests the best remedy to poor teen sleep is later secondary school start times. Biological changes in teens' circadian rhythms shift their natural bedtime later at night. Some studies suggest that most teens reach peak wakefulness around 9 PM—that is, when they should be falling asleep to get 8+ hours of shut-eye. Asking teens to be wakeful and cheery at 5:30 AM is a fool's errand. It flies in the face of thousands of years of biology.
Many school districts have opted for later start times. I hope this soon becomes the norm. Until then, insisting on good sleep habits will help negate the impact of the pre-dawn wakeup.
Help your teen by doing the following:
Go to bed at a consistent time, all week (even the weekends)
Limit screen time in the hour(s) leading up to bed. Blue light impacts the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that causes us to feel sleepy. Worse yet, social media can create anxiety and stress, which prevents sound sleep.
Beds are for sleeping and only sleeping! You do not want to associate your bed with lounging, watching movies, talking to friends, etc.
Make your environment worthy of sleep: cool, dark, and calming. If you live in a loud neighborhood, consider a white noise machine.
There is reason for hope in addressing this health crisis (yes, it really is a crisis). The push for later start times in schools is gaining momentum. Society's awareness is increasing. The mantra "I'll sleep when I'm dead" is no longer accepted as evidence of hard work. Large technology corporations have begun to create features to promote better sleep. Take, for example, Apple's "Night Shift" and "Do Not Disturb" features. Last but not least, you the parent, are a critical player in the sleep revolution. Prioritize sleep the same way you would healthy eating or exercise. Insist on it, 7 days a week.
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