With school start times in the national spotlight, it’s pertinent to understand the importance of sleep in adolescents. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adolescents get between eight and ten hours of sleep a night. However, many aren’t getting that amount. And the causes for these teenage sleep problems may not simply be too much screen time or social media posting. It could also be school hours.
Many middle and high school classes in the US start before 8:00 am, but biological changes in the circadian rhythm during puberty mean that most adolescents are physically unable to fall asleep until around 11pm. As a result, we wake our children before the body’s natural circadian rhythm is ready for the day – leaving them chronically overtired.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, about one in six teens are getting the recommended amount of sleep. That’s 15%. An average of one in five teens regularly falls asleep in class. Many students also suffer from behavioral challenges, and they struggle to learn and retain the information that they are taught in these formative years.
Adolescents are actually at the age of peak health – both physically and cognitively – over any other age in their life. However, a lack of sleep contributes to the inability to regulate emotion and behavior. Teenagers are going through the second phase of cognitive maturation. Add in all of the sports, after-school activities, homework and possibly a part-time job, coupled with waking before the sun rises, and children don’t have the ability to get the sleep their bodies need each night. And, no, sleeping away a Saturday doesn’t fix the damage done.
There two main parts of the brain that are responsible for reasoning, problem-solving, good judgment, and emotion and impulse control: the prefrontal quartet and the amygdala. These two parts are also the two main places in the brain impacted by sleep deprivation.
Additional impacts include:
- A greater risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse
- Increased rate in adolescent car accidents from drowsy driving
- Poor physical health, including an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and ADHD
- Increased tardiness and absence
Dr. Judith Owens, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center explained on Parents.com, “the symptoms of sleep deprivation and ADHD, including impulsivity and distractibility, mirror each other almost exactly.” Lack of sleep has also been linked to low mood and depression among teenagers.
Getting More Sleep Despite School Start Times
Here are changes that you can look at in your home if sleep is a struggle:
- Set a bedtime and stick to it. Routines are important signals in the body preparing for sleep.
- Monitor screen time before bed. Turn off all devices one hour before it’s time to sleep, as blue-light exposure is a major factor in the struggle to fall asleep
- Power down as a family. Get a small basket where everyone — including mom and dad — place their tablets and phones and grab a good-old-fashioned book to read instead.
- Limit your child’s intake of highly-caffeinated drinks and coffee after 3pm.
- Deep breathing exercises or meditation, journaling and mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety at bedtime.
Sleep’s Positive Impact on Kids
School hours and when activities take place are decided by adults’ needs. School budgets, transportation schedules, work schedules, and use of facilities and fields in the community all have an impact on the decision and ability to adjust school start times for our developing youth. Are those decisions setting up kids to fail?
There is research showing that school districts with later start times can positively impact young people.
- Seattle, WA School District: Increased final grade averages by 4.5%.
- North Andover, MA School District: Improved overall grades and attendance, decreased tardiness and discipline referrals.
- Glen Falls, NY School District: Improved school tardiness by 29% and decreased the percentage of students failing courses by 36%.
- Edina, MN School District: Improved attendance and increased extra-curricular participation.
- Fairfax County, VA School District: Test scores remained high, and student attendance went up.
- Fayette County, KY School District: Reduced teen driver crash rates by 16.5% in 2 years.
There is also an economic impact. Dr. Wendy Troxel, a Senior Behavioralist and Social Scientist found significant economic improvement resulted from such changes. In a research piece published by the Rand Corporation, after just two years, there would be a projected economic gain of $8.6 billion to the US economy, which would already outweigh the costs per student from delaying school start times to 8.30 am.
While the economic impacts can be debated, the impact that chronic sleep loss has on our youth is clear. Likewise, it suggests what behaviors need to change and what we can all do to support proper sleep hygiene within our local schools and communities. Start School Later is a great site to learn more about sleep deprivation in adolescents and to find out if there is a local chapter in your area you can join. Your children will thank you one day.
About the Author
Courtney Zentz is a Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Lactation Counselor and founder of Tiny Transitions. As an award-winning specialist, she and her team help exhausted parents teach their children to sleep well every night with gentle, customized solutions.
Teenage Sleep Problems Causes — Sources
National Sleep Foundation
Dr. Judith Owens, M.D., in Parents.com
National Sleep Foundation — Effects of Blue-Light
Rand Corporation — Dr. Wendy Troxel
Rand Corporation — Value of Sleep on the Economy
Start School Later