Sleep, School, and the Teenager

The New York Times recently reported that biology may be to blame when it comes to teenagers’ sleep schedules. Young children who wake up early usually grow into teenagers who are difficult to rouse in time for school even though middle and high schools classes start earlier. Apparently, “adolescent bodies” naturally want to operate on a schedule shifted later than those of young children: they want to go to bed late, and get up late. This phenomenon - adolescent sleep delay - is not limited to humans; in fact, other mammals display it as well.


The consequence of this relative incompatibility between a teen’s body clock and school schedule appears in performance. Students tend to do better in tests - both cognitive and coursework related - taken in the afternoon. To catch up on alertness, adolescents might turn to caffeine for help during the day, leading to a “tired but wired” state that one clinical psychologist said led to more risk-taking behavior. Even without specific risk-taking, tired adolescents in general are in more danger than if they were well-rested, especially if they drive amid such fatigue.


Sleep is important in the discussion about adolescent health because of its link to what experts call the “adolescent health paradox:” teenagers, who are in a “developmental period of physical strength and resilience, face disproportionately high mortality rates.” According to the article, programs aimed at specific issues like substance abuse or unsafe sex are expensive and not always successful. Approaching sleep as one of the facets of overall health that can support teenagers during their development would be much more meaningful.


It is difficult to think of ways to feasibly incorporate sleep support into, say, the academically-rigorous nature of high school and even middle school. However, it is important for schools and parents to remember the effect a 24-hour sleep cycle can have on a student’s concentration, mood, or emotional decisions and health. The link between sleep health and behavioral health is real, and there is evidence for the connection to academic performance as well. There are some sleep scientists or child psychologists who actually advocate later school start times. While it may be difficult to implement such structural changes, it is important to remember the importance of the science behind such proposals impacting students and classrooms every day.