• The Teacher's Inbox

Why Your Teen Needs More Sleep

Updated: Mar 13

Every morning, I greet teenagers as they file into my classroom. Many present more zombie than human—shuffling their feet clumsily while they stifle a yawn and struggle to keep their heavy eyelids from falling closed. When a student has an uncharacteristically difficult day—behaviorally or otherwise—I often begin my line of questioning with how they slept the previous night. Undoubtedly, the response is “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.”

While well-rested students makes my job in the classroom easier, it is advisable to bear in mind the criticalrole sleep plays in adolescent development. Failure to prioritize sufficient sleep for our children can have many undesirable ramification.

Negative Consequences of Persistent Sleep Deprivation in Adolescents

An abundance of research exists on the adverse effects of insufficient sleep. It impacts adults and children similarly. However, disrupted sleep in adolescence has especially negative ramifications because of the myriad of changes occurring in the young brain. Some of these consequences include:

  • Decreased focus and poor academic performance

  • Increased automobile 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 of developing depression, anxiety and other emotional regulation disorders later in life. “Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety and other types of emotional problems. Parents, therefore, need to think about sleep as an essential component of overall health in the same way they do nutrition, dental hygiene and physical activity” (University of Houston). Most likely, mental health challenges are comorbid with poor sleep. For example, someone who suffers from anxiety is more likely to sleep poorly...and therefore experience higher levels of anxiety. This becomes a vicious cycle.

What Is Happening During Adolescent Sleep?

Exploring what happens in the adolescent brain during sleep helps demonstrate the undeniable importance of shut eye.

In early childhood, sleep provides a time for the brain to lay down an abundance of neural pathways. The purpose here is to over-engineer the brain, with the intent of pruning the unnecessary pathways in adolescence. This process is intense and requires a lot of sleep. Think of how much sleep newborns and infants require! Newborns spend their days feeding and sleeping.

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 vitally important process in brain development. Furthermore, sleep is tremendously complex and phasic. Our sleep alternates between NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement). Dreams occur during the REM phase, which is responsible for memory consolidation. Creativity is also fueled during this sleep phase. Most REM sleep occurs in the early morning hours. By waking up a couple hours before we reach our necessary sleep, we are consistently missing out on this vital REM sleep. 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 Adequate Sleep

There are two obvious remedies for this sleep-deprivation crisis:

  1. later school start times for secondary schools

  2. improved sleep hygiene

The body of research on adolescent development and sleep suggests the easiest remedy for our overtired teens is a later school start time. Researchers point to the change in children’s circadian rhythms during mid-childhood and adolescence. In fact, some studies suggest that most teens reach a peak wakefulness around 9PM—that is, when they should be falling asleep to get 8+ hours of shut eye. Many districts have begun to make policy adjustments by starting their secondary schools later in the morning. Unfortunately, until school policies change, parents and teachers must do what they can to maximize children’s sleep. We, as parents and educators, can work toward improving our teens' sleep hygiene.

Parents and teens should focus on developing healthy sleep routines and habits. Consider 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, which is responsible for causing us to feel sleepy. Worse yet, social media can create anxiety and stress, which prevents sound sleep.

  • The bed is for sleeping. Insist that your child only uses their bed to sleep. This way, they will not associate their bed with lounging, watching movies, talking to friends, etc.

  • Create a dark and comfortable sleeping environment. Cool, dark and calming. If you live an a loud neighborhood, consider a white noise machine.

Armed with an understanding of the importance of sleep to adolescent development and strategies to improve teens' sleep, we can begin to address this health crisis. School districts nationwide are beginning to give credence to the research and are truly evaluating the need for later start times for middle schools and high schools.

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