Supporting the Adolescent Sleep Cycle

adolescent sleepUnderstanding how the adolescent sleep cycle works is fundamental to boosting the health and academic success of teenagers. We know that many young people find it difficult to wake up in the morning, arriving at school feeling tired and crucially unable to learn. Neuroscientists tell us that the teenage sleep-wake cycle differs to that of adults and children, and that over a sustained period of time this can result in chronic sleep deprivation. But what are these differences? And how can we address them? First, we must consider the hormone that controls the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle: melatonin.

Melatonin is produced by the tiny pineal gland in the brain, influencing our energy levels throughout the day. During daylight hours, our pineal gland is inactive. However, at night it releases melatonin into the blood – making our bodies feel sleepy. During mid to late adolescence there are changes in the production of melatonin which increases the need for sleep, and also delays the adolescent sleep-wake cycle by up to three hours compared to adults and children. Research from around the world has shown this to be the case.

The impact of this can be monumental. Waking a teenager up at 7am every school day is the biological equivalent of waking an adult up at 5am. As such, it isn’t difficult to imagine the short-term and long-term effects that might result from a lack of sleep – and yet the start time of the secondary school day does not take this into account.

Secondary school staff are therefore likely to notice that their students having:

  • Poor concentration
  • Bad and irritable moods
  • Poor impulse control
  • Lower overall performance across the board, from academics to athletics
  • Increased risk of mental health problems

They may notice that students are increasingly consuming caffeinated drinks, resulting in young people feeling ‘tired but wired’ and turning to alcohol and substance use.

When thinking of ways to combat this, many commentators have proposed a later start to the school day, enabling young people to get the sleep they need. If they are not sleep-deprived, they are far more able to engage with learning. Timetabling can also adapt, with the core subjects taught later in the day when pupils are better able to concentrate and feel open to learning. Put simply, you can either work with or work against their biology. Read more about this here.

In addition to the difference in melatonin production, we must consider the impact of smart phones on sleep. If young people are taking their phones to their rooms at night, they will be tempted to turn to social media and continue messaging with their friends. We know that the blue light emitted from screens affects levels of melatonin, further delaying the body’s ability to fall asleep and therefore contributing to tiredness the following morning.

To help their students, schools may wish to share information with parents and carers about their children’s sleep health. From putting technology away for 90 minutes before they go to sleep to encouraging relaxing pre-sleep rituals, there are plenty of measures that could be taken at home to aid better sleep.

Sleep is as important to our biology as eating well and exercising; we suffer without it. If young people experience sleep deprivation, long term and serious physical and mental health problems can emerge, from obesity and diabetes to depression and anxiety. When we are sleep deprived, we are far more likely to make risky decisions – this is particularly worrying for teenagers who are already taking more risks. Read more about this behaviour here.

Working with young people’s biology can be the difference between achieving and struggling in the classroom. We cannot overlook the damaging impacts of sleep deprivation. Feeling irritable and finding it hard to concentrate in lessons can be the first few steps on the journey to experiencing far more serious health problems in the future. The good news is that we can make changes which, in turn, will support healthier brain development.


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