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Sleep Tips: Get Your Teen Some Zzzzs

Sleep may be the secret weapon in helping your teen's academic achievement.

By GreatSchools Staff

Lack of sleep is a national epidemic for today's teens, and the consequences are serious.

In a recent University of Colorado survey, 82% of middle and high school students reported that they woke up tired and more than 50% had trouble concentrating at school at least once a week. A National Sleep Foundation survey found that only one-fifth of teenagers get the nine recommended hours of sleep each night.

Sleep deprivation can affect cognitive skills and academic achievement. A continuing lack of sleep is linked to serious health problems including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression and a shortened life span. Sleepy teens who drive pose a safety risk to themselves and to others - more than half of the 100,000 U.S. car accidents caused each year by sleepy drivers involve teenagers.

Teens Require More Sleep, Not Less

Studies show that teens require more sleep than children and adults but, on the whole, get less. Their natural body rhythms change as they enter adolescence and make it difficult for them to fall asleep early at night. At the same time, most high schools require students to get to school earlier and earlier. Added to this school schedule are the demands on teens to work, participate in many extracurricular activities and keep up with heavy academic schedules. And then there are the social demands - connecting with friends via cell phones and instant messaging at all hours. Is it any wonder that the majority of teens are sleep deprived? What's the solution?

Make Sleep a Priority

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, teacher, parent educator and author of Sleepless in America, says parents can play a key role by placing a high value on their children's sleep. She says the first step for parents is to "make sleep a priority."

"The scientific research that links heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity with lack of sleep means that sleep is not a luxury," she says. "This is about health and well being."

Kurcinka says parents need to set limits on extracurricular activities and teen computer time, and become advocates at their school for reducing the amount of homework, and encouraging schools to start later.

More and More Teens Lack Sleep - A Disturbing Trend

Kurcinka argues that lack of sleep among teens is more common now than ever before and attributes this trend to three factors: science, safety and achievement.

"Science - The research on early brain development and the importance of brain stimulation has meant kids are overstimulated starting at a young age. They begin by watching 'Baby Einstein' videos and continue from there. Safety - parents are afraid to let kids go out and play so they provide more structured activities which tend to be organized around adult hours and schedules. Achievement - so much is competitive and overly achievement oriented for kids, from soccer to gymnastics to academics."

To counter these factors, Kurcinka says, parents should "create an environment that values sleep and is conducive to it. The bottom line is that parents of children who are successful have a secret weapon - they protect their kids' sleep. Kids who get more sleep have higher grade-point averages. In a study reported in the journal Child Development in 2003 entitled 'The Effects of Sleep Restriction and Extension on School-Age Children: What a Difference an Hour Makes,' Tel Aviv University researcher Avi Sadeh found that even 41 minutes less sleep each night can affect memory and attention."

Schools and Communities to the Rescue

Schools and communities can play a role, too. In 1996, the Edina Public School District in Minnesota became the first school system in the state to change school start times to accommodate the sleep needs of teens. "Academic performance is about more than class size and dollars spent per pupil," said Superintendent Kenneth Dragseth in a statement at the time. "We do everything we can to create an optimal learning environment for our students. If adjusting school starting times improves their performance, we're willing to make the changes necessary to do that."

Other schools and school districts around the nation are slowly starting to follow, although it is often difficult to get agreement among parents, teachers, school officials and school bus schedulers. So far, schools or districts in 19 states have changed their start times and more than 100 school districts in an additional 17 states are currently considering making a change. Even state legislatures are weighing in. A measure was considered in Massachusetts to encourage high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and a similar measure, the "ZZZ's to A's Act" was recently introduced in California, although no action was taken.

Mark Mahowald, professor of Neurology at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, played a role in urging schools to change their start times in Minnesota. "When we started, we didn't really think schools would change," he says. "Our real hope was to get schools to reverse the trend of starting earlier and earlier. We were pleasantly surprised when they did decide to move the start time later. When the start times were changed, we noticed some improvement in academic performance but the major change was in student behavior - they were particularly less irritable in morning."

"There were many obstacles to change," he notes. "Busing schedules, after-school sports, student employment were all excuses, but none had anything to do with education."

Kurcinka warns that changing start times is not enough. "Research shows you can't just shift start times; you have to educate parents and teens to monitor sleep. Otherwise kids just stay up later and later, and later start times don't do any good."

Catching Up on Sleep is Not a Good Option

Teens often think they'll catch up on sleep they don't get during the week on the weekend. But sleep experts at the Mayo Clinic advise against this practice as irregular sleep schedules can affect the biological clock, hurt the quality of sleep and cause greater irritability. Teens who sleep until noon on the weekend may have an even harder time getting up for school on Monday morning. It's better, the experts say, to keep similar schedules during the week and on the weekends.

Advice for Parents: Be Your Teen's Sleep Advocate

Talk to your teen about sleep. As a parent of a teen, you can be his guide. Have a conversation with him about the importance of sleep. "Educate your teen about how much sleep he needs and how it will affect his performance," advises Kurchinka. "If he wants to do well in his soccer game, or on a test, make him aware that he will do better if he gets more sleep. The research shows that parents who coach and monitor their teens do have an influence. As a parent, you can make a difference."

Encourage your teen to establish a sleep routine. It may not be effective to force your teen to go to bed earlier because his natural body clock makes him want to stay up later. But you can encourage him to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Teens need an average of nine hours of sleep each night. Let him get to sleep when he wants but insist on a regular wake-up time, and work with him to push back his bedtime by 10 or 15 minutes for a few nights to get to a reasonable bedtime.

Say no to late-night TV and computer use. Keep the computer and TV out of your teen's bedroom, if possible, but at the very least make a rule to turn them off by 10 p.m.. You can encourage your teen to start getting ready for bed during the commercials and to record "must-see" late night shows and watch them at another time.

Limit caffeine. Teens may be tempted to load up on caffeine when they don't get enough sleep. But too much caffeine can interfere with natural sleep patterns and make it harder to fall asleep at night.

The pros and cons of naps. A short nap after school (no more than 30 minutes) may be refreshing, but don't let your teen sleep for hours during the day as this will throw off her natural sleep schedule. It may be a stretch to convince your school to provide a time for naps, but it is done in Japan. Schools there encourage "power naps" at lunchtime, when students put their heads down on their desk for 20 to 30 minutes.

Exercise plays a role in keeping a regular sleep schedule. "Exercise is very important, particularly getting outside and getting morning light," says Kurcinka. "But exercise raises the body temperature so it is not a good idea to exercise right before going to sleep. That means it's important to regulate organized soccer and baseball games so they are not scheduled too late into the evening."

Be a role model. Show your teen that you make sleep a priority in your own life. Teens are more likely to follow your advice if you follow the same rules for yourself.

Comments from readers

"I cant get any sleep at night only dat time........ "
"I'm taking both IB and AP classes in high school and my sleep schedule is horrible. I get 5 to 6 hours of homework a night, and about the same amount of sleep. If I didn't have homework, I'd sleep at least 9 hours a night. Adults keep saying that it's our own fault for not getting enough sleep because we spend too much time watching TV, on Facebook and Twitter, etc., but honestly I haven't watched TV in months and I do not have a fb or Twitter account. I don't read books for leisure, either. I had to give up all of my hobbies. I'm so tired when I do my homework that it turns out to be "bad quality" and I get a poor grade on it, so my GPA is very low, and I'm afraid that after all my work and damage to my mental health (I developed depression due to stress) that I won't get accepted into college. Because of my lack of sleep I have trouble concentrating and can't memorize anything to save my life. I also have obtained anxiety and low self-esteem issues. Often nights I cry myse! lf to sleep. I hardly hang out with my friends anymore, just twice a year. I feel like my future is destroyed because of my mental problems and lack of motivation, never mind my falling grades. There seriously needs to be a law restricting the amount of homework given out, because this is getting ridiculous. All of this work is detrimental to a person's health, particularly to children and teens, whose bodies still need energy to grow and their brains aren't fully developed. I not only fear for my personal future, which once seemed so bright, but for the future of humanity. Darn you Thomas Edison, for your invention of the lightbulb! If it weren't for artificial light, I could be getting some zzz's! - . - "
"I have to wake up every day at 4:30 AM in order to catch my bus, because my bus driver was given a route in which she has to go 45 minutes off course to pick up one or two kids. This makes it completely impossible to get a good night's sleep. If teenagers need 9 hours, I'd have to go to bed around 7PM, and that can't happen, since I get home around 3:30, and have homework until 4:30 and piano until 5:30, then a break time, and then piano again from 6:30 to 7. Also, my dad doesn't get home from work until 9, maybe 9:30PM, so unless I want to never see my dad again, I can't get a good night of sleep on the weekday. "
"I would LOVE to get 9 hours of sleep a night, but in this race to get into the best colleges and get to the top of the class, we need to exert ourselves and take on every challenge. I'm taking 4 AP classes right now and I can get to bed around 10PM IF I'M LUCKY. I can't remember the last time I've really had 'fun' in the past 3 months."
"whats a good way to get your bed warm and toasty without having to get an extra blanket/hot water bottle/electric blanket? i find it hard to sleep if im too cold pls answer"
"i think this is a good idea with the whole sleep comfort zone because i have to do a speech in my high schools forensics team for congress, and it was brought to the committee that we should have a nap period after lunch, and this sort of gave me some ideas on it."
"you guys have good tips for us teens"
"Though I recently graduated college (Fall 08'), I like to think my reflections on high school are not to distant (class 04'). As I remember, my senior year I worked after school and weekends all year (~25 hrs a week), participated in Track/field, and maintained a full 6 hour academic schedule (albeit I SHOULD have been taking an extra math and/or science as opposed to working and the dual credit computer technology classes for a 'jump start' on college, but at that point I wasn't college bound... that's another story.). I was also very interested in weight lifting, and through this interest I realized how essential sleep and diet were to making physical and also mental progress. If I could be in bed by 10:00 I would wake up (by alarm) ~ 6:30 and feel okay, any less sleep than that and I would feel tired, whereby I could go through the motions, but mental processes, i.e. studying, writting, etc.,, were much more tedious and ineffecient. My opinion: schools should operate ! whenever best suits the community and not necesarilly be made to accommodate non-morning people. As preparedness and sleep will fall on the individual students ability to understand and then discipline him/herself, and how he/she percieves the importance of their own education, as this will guide him/her through the amount of time devoted to social, academic, work, family, personal, other(?) ~ and hey that sounds like life! Shaped by the conscious decisions we make. I say make the students conscious/aware of the importance of sleep and let them figure the rest out (just don't give the sleep lecture during an early period or when lots of pupils are tired)."
"please don't make ignorant comments about my grammar and punctuation errors. i am already aware of them. i am an elevnth grader high school student going to a duval county public school. these are my thoughts and opinions: *KEEP IN MIND THAT YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT PEOPLE ARE GOING THROUGH!* there are too many responsibilities and academic expectations for high schoolers nowadays. the school hours should accomidate these demands. if the teachers want so much work done, they should leave about a half hour or more for the students to get a head-start on doing the homework, make-up work, or tutoring. this way it is more assured that the students know what's going on, and so they could even turn in work early. if work gets done early, then the teachers won't have as big of a stack of homework to check when the due papers are turned in."
"There is one thing that I would like to know... I am a teen myself... All of this is perfectly normal for adults to say, and that we should get more sleep. But I have to catch the bus to school at 7.30 in the morning and if I want to get the recommended number of hours of sleep, then I have to go to bed around 8.o'clock. I think that that is kind of ridiculous. My 2 year old sister goes to sleep then. I have been looking every where to see if there is a way that I can get to school on time and not having to go to bed at ridiculous times, whilst maintaining a good night's sleep. I have included my school email address, and I was wondering if I could have a reply to this email, answering my question, as soon as possible. Apart from that, I think that this is a good website. But it is a lot of writing (which is very small), and not many pictures... makes the site look boring at first. Many thanks. I look forward to your reply."
"I have explained my teens the need to sleep well and to setup a sleeping schedule, unfortunately they to attached to something we did not have in our youth 'computers' and 'myspace and so on in what the new world of technology"
"I am doing a persuasive essay on how the amount of sleep children get each night can affect their preformance in school. About how many minutes earlier should kids go to bed to get better averages? Could you send me any information that might persuade my classmates to get more sleep. Thank you so much."
"why is it that the high school students at Valley High in Valley, Alabama, are forced to be up at 7:00 or earlier to get on the bus? Some parents don't have the leisure of taking their children to school that early and most have to be at work at eight and don't have the time. Valley students must be at school at early hours in order to be ready for class and in one particular class their is at least 2 pages of homework each night of several Algebra problems and though one of my children is in an Advanced class she may lose her credit this year due to the that so much homeowrk is given and she has other things to do such as chores and ect.. She almost always has trouble getting up in the morning and is often late for the bus and barely makes it on. I fear for her grades because she wants with more than all her heart to go to Yale and with her Alebra grade I am afraid she won't be able to. "
"High schoolers and possibly middle schoolers are the ones who should really be having the nap time, not the preschoolers who have so much energy anyways. Does the nap time really help the pre-k'ers? I mean, really, they do nothing and get snack time (snack time would be nice for HS 2) and nap time and are expected to do a whole lot of nothing for the rest of their school day ** I am not trying to offend those who have young children who have snack and nap time, but MS and HS-ers really need a break somewhere in their school day before going home and doing work they didn't finsh in class, homework and other chores.** Sports doesn't really provide that 'down time' either because they have to focus on what they're doing. It would be nice for schools to start later and end later so students could get the 9 hours of sleep and not fall asleep in class "
" I brought this up to my school's assistant principal a few weeks ago. His response? He agreed that it would be better for the kids to attend later in the day for all of the reasons mentioned in the article, would affect the sports/extra-curricular activities too much, in his opinion. My question is: how do I combat that excuse? What have other schools done to re-arrange their sport/extra-curricular activities?"
" We moved from Charlotte, NC 4 years ago with the 7:30am start time to Columbus, OH with a 7:00am start time. My 15 year old daughter is up at 5:30. She receives project on top of project plus regular homework. I'm not only worried about lack of sleep but the anxiety associated with what these teenagers have to accomplish that can prevent sleep."
"I'm a high school student and I never get enough sleep. Taking honors and accelerated classes, I have so much homework and not enough hours in the day. I usually don't get to bed until 12 or 1, sometimes later. I'm lucky to get 7 hours of sleep. I wish schools would start later because I know I would be able to concentrate better and be less tired. This article is really helpful. I'll have to try to set up a regular sleep schedule, if I can. I also 'make-up' my sleep on weekends, but now I know that's unhealthy. I never knew sleep deprevation could cause so many health problems."
"My daughter and I would LOVE to have her get more sleep. She is never able to get enough due to the large volumes of homework she receives. She is in a college prep school, and they give her quite a bit. Also, my daughter reports that seems the more the students and teachers are off task in class the more homework they receive. This is a huge issue because I have read studies that show that homework does not make a student 'smarter', and can in fact lower their grade. Most importantly,it takes aways from important family time. It has always been my goal to have my daughter, who is now 14 go to bed by 10 pm. It very rarely occurs. By the time she comes home from her after school activity, she pulls her homework out immediately and she only comes up for air to eat dinner. On the weekends and holidays, she still receives homework and is not really able to enjoy vacation time. It is so frustrating. Homework is a tradition in many school, but I feel, if the teachers ma! ke the most use out of the 40-50 minutes they are given in class, it would dramatically reduce the NEED for homework."
"My daughter's high school starts at 7:10am which means she has to catch the school bus at 6:30am. With heavy homework and book reports she only gets 5 hours of sleep each night. What is the most effective way to get her school to start one hour late?"
"Very informative article!"
"There are many AP classes and especially IB classes that my daughter takes that assign at least 5 hours of homework a night. It happens. Not to mention study time and extracurricular activities. The harder courses teens take, the more time they must spend to succeed in school."
"The part about talking with your teenager about sleep is so very eye opening because when I just tell my child to go to bed at a certain time she has this altitude, that I think she is a child. So, now I will just expain to her why and we will go over this together. This article is GOOD!! I have forwarded this to the PTO of my school Challenge Early High School in Houston Texas because this should be put on the agenda for discussion. With the growing trends of every child having their own computer in each household we have got to get control."
"I think it's interesting that North Carolina is identified in another respondent's comments. We just moved to Charlotte, and we're pretty unhappy that our 15-year old has to be up at 6am(!) to catch a 6:40 school bus, in order to make a 7:30am start time only 2 miles away. Why should high school start at 7:30am!? (One reason, the ridiculous 'block schedule'.) Our teenager is out at 2:30 and home by 3pm; but, try getting him into bed at 8:30pm for a 9pm 'lights out'; i.e., enough to get 9 hours of sleep. I wish parents could sue their school district to force them to start school at a reasonable hour: say, no earlier than 8:30am. That would leave 6 hours for instruction and an hour for lunch/breaks to meet a 3:30 end-of-day, well before the commute rush. In North Carolina, it seems the lack of school buses is a major factor in these ridiculous school hours. There aren't enough of them, so they have to stagger the start times of elementary, middle, and high schools, in order to get double-duty out of buses. Ridiculous, especially for parents who are willing, like that respondent, to drive their child to school."
"I teach high school. What the heck are high school kids doing up at night past 10:00 pm that constructive? All of this business about hours and hours of home work is a load. Kids get out of school at 3:00. Even those with sports practice which shouldn't last until later than 5:30 if a principal has his athletic coaches under the right supervision, it still leaves a kid 4-6 hours of homework and 'time' Turn all cell phone off...adults too when you get home. This 24/7 access model is a pure load from the phone companies."
"With the competitiveness of college, high school students are doing even more to get an edge. Overwhelming schedules of AP classes and extracurriculars leads to less sleep. The same rings true for college students, who are competing for graduate school, staying up, overwhelmed with material to study. "
"Tell this to the schools! The Wake County, NC schools require the high school kids to be at the bus stop at 6:00 to 6:15 AM. For this reason, I don't make my son ride the bus to school - I drive him instead, allowing him to sleep until 6:00 - an additional hour. He goes to bed at 10:00, by choice. Many parents don't have the options of taking their kids to school, and I don't know of any teen who would be willing to go to bed before 10:00 - whatever reason is given. Let's have some help from the schools!"