Teens, Sleep, and School

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Is your teenager getting enough sleep? Recently there have been several national news stories about teenagers and their physiological need for sleep. Teen drivers are involved in more sleep-related accidents than any other segment of the population, and research suggests that adolescents may be among the most sleep-deprived group in society.

Sleep researchers have conducted studies that suggest school classes should begin later in the morning to accommodate the teen's need for sleep. Based on this research, some U.S. schools have changed their school's start time. For example, based on a recommendation from the Minnesota Medical Association, several schools in Minnesota have established later start times (Sulack, 1997). In the 1997-1998 school year, administrators in Minneapolis, Minnesota established start times as follows: classes at the middle school level start at 9:40, and for high school, classes start at 8:30 (O'Conner, 1998). Administrators in other school districts around the country are being approached by doctors, parents, and educators to consider moving the school start time later in the morning (Fox, 1998).

This interest in delaying the start time for middle and high school students is based in part on the research of Dr. Mary Carskadon, a sleep researcher at Brown University. In April of 1997, Carskadon chaired an international symposium that focused on "Contemporary Perspectives on Adolescent Sleep." For years, Carskadon states, we have been going under the assumption that as children grow to adulthood, they need less sleep. Carskadon's research suggests that is not the case, and that a teenager's irregular sleep schedule (up late during the weeknights and sleeping in on weekends) contributes to the lack of restful sleep. As they enter puberty, teens experience a hormonal shift that affects their sleep patterns.

The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota conducted a research study on the later school start times implemented in Minnesota ( [NPIN editor's note (5-16-01): this url has changed:] ). Their review of medical research on adolescent sleep lists the following key findings:

* As teenagers move through the teen years, they need increasing amounts of sleep.
* Teens need nine hours of sleep each night to avoid behaviors associated with sleep deprivation.
* Teen sleep deprivation is associated with information processing and memory deficits, increased irritability, anxiety, and depression, and decreased creativity and ability to handle complex tasks.
* 20% of all high school students fall asleep in school.
* Over half of students report being most alert after 3:00 in the afternoon.
* Additional weekend sleep does not offset the effects of sleep deprivation.
* The adolescent's circadian rhythm means he or she will feel awake later into the evening (through midnight) and unable to fall asleep. (Even if they go to bed at 9:30, they are not likely to fall asleep til after 11:00.)

While this is a new field of study, researchers are recommending parents consider the following tips to make sure their adolescents get enough sleep:

* Help them establish a regular, relaxing routine to unwind from the activities of the day. This signals to the body that it is time to prepare for sleep.
* Discourage them from reading books or watching television programs at bedtime that are violent, frightening, or controversial. This content can act as a stimulant that delays the onset of sleep.
* Discourage caffeine consumption in the afternoon and evening.
* Encourage regular exercise.
* Discourage naps.


Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. School start time study: final report summary [Online]. Available: [1998, July 19]. [NPIN editor's note (5-16-01): this url has changed:]

Fox, Jonathan. (April 29, 1998). Newest public enemy: Not enough Z's for teens. Education Daily 31(82), pp. 1-4.

O'Connor, Anne. (1998). New start times find students awake, families frustrated. Minneapolis Star Tribune [Online]. Available: [1998, July 4]. [Editor's note: this url is no longer available 5-8-2000]

Sulack, Karin. (March, 1997). Sleep deprivation induces later start times. Crossroads Chronicle [Online]. Available: [July 6, 1998]. [Editor's note: this link is no longer available 4-18-2000]
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