How to Help Teens Stay Awake at School

Younger teens need between nine and 11 hours of sleep per night on average, while older teens should get between eight and 10 hours, experts say. But because of increased screen time, academic workload, social pressures and early school start times — among other factors — they often sleep much less.

A lack of sleep may lead to teens nodding off during the school day, causing gaps in learning and disturbances in the classroom.

“Sleep is so restorative and it promotes optimization of your brain health. And so getting an adequate amount of sleep is really important for your overall well-being,” says Dr. Hina Talib, pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at Atria Institute, a primary and preventive care practice in New York City. “Teens are, as an age group, chronically sleep deprived. And unfortunately there are some really untoward side effects from being sleep deprived, which includes scary things like increased accident rates. It can include having trouble in school, not doing as well on tests or not completing homework assignments. It also impacts mental health.”

Here are suggestions for how teachers can help their high schoolers stay awake during the school day, as well as recommendations for what teens and parents can do to develop healthy sleep habits.

[READ:Self-Care for Teens: a Boon for Mental Health]

What Teachers Can Do

Make Time For Brain Breaks

Experts suggest having students take breaks during class to stand up, stretch or find a peer to talk with for a few minutes.

“I think oftentimes we think of movement breaks and sensory breaks as something just to provide at the elementary level. But those things can be just as meaningful as students get older,” says Jessica Saum, a special education teacher at Stagecoach Elementary School in Arkansas. “It gets them moving and engaging with others and they’re able to then sit back down and hopefully be more engaged in the lesson and the learning.”

Encourage Collaboration in the Classroom

Rather than listening to a lecture for an entire class period, students should also be given time to collaborate with their peers, experts say.

“We’re giving partnerships and giving them an opportunity to be meaningful members of their learning,” Saum says. “Having them work with different people in the class, that forces movement so it’s easier to stay awake.”

What Teens and Parents Can Do

Openly Communicate Needs

Falling asleep in class is often designated as a behavior issue and can create tension between a teacher and student.

“A teacher may form an easy natural bias if they see a student unengaged or sleepy,” Saum says. They may have a legitimate excuse. There may be things happening at home or they are having to work late. But if the teacher doesn’t know the student and know the story, all they are seeing is someone who appears to not care or be engaged in their learning.”

So students need to take ownership and communicate with the teacher or principal about why they’re falling asleep in class, especially if the behavior is atypical. It may be out of a student’s control, as it could be linked to sickness or other health issues, experts say.

“Be comfortable enough to name when you’re struggling so that you and your teacher can find a way for you to stay engaged, whether that’s by standing or using some type of alternative seating that makes it easier for you to pay attention and focus so that you can be successful academically,” Saum says.

[READ: How to Communicate With Your Child’s Teacher]

Limit Screen Time

Many teens play video games or scroll on social media in the evening to connect with friends and unwind after school. But the light can disrupt your ability to fall asleep, Talib says, not to mention that a few minutes can turn into hours before you know it.

“I think that also really impacts how they’re able to self-regulate themselves to go to bed,” she says. “And it’s not their fault. These devices are made to engage them. And the light they emit actually works against your biology to make you feel more awake than you should at the time that you start to wind down and feel sleepy.”

So instead of relying on a cell phone to unwind, experts advise teens to read a book or listen to music before bed. To avoid having their devices next to them at night, teens may want to consider buying an alarm clock instead of using the one on their phone.

“Keep your phone outside your room,” says Dr. Samuel Knee, medical director and chief of pediatric sleep medicine at The Center for Sleep and Breathing Disorders at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Jersey. “If you really need your phone, you could always just turn it off and turn it back on in the morning.”

Parents can also play a role in enforcing limits on technology use at night and keeping devices out of teens’ bedrooms.

Teach Time Management Skills

Some teens feel pressure to cram for an exam the night before, while others have to pull an all-nighter to finish an assignment after procrastinating. Experts advise parents and teachers to be aware of the amount of work put on teens and to teach them how to manage their time.

“There’s big jumps when you go from elementary to middle and then middle to high school. Expectations change so quickly and our students aren’t always prepared for the new responsibilities,” Saum says. “Sometimes we are going to have to give some extra guidance and a timeline for them to complete their work so that they can practice and learn those habits and be successful independently.”

Get Ready the Night Before

To save time in the morning, teens can prepare for school the night before. That includes laying out clothes, making their lunch and packing up their backpacks.

This preparation can increase the amount of time a teen can sleep in the morning, even if it’s only by 15 or 20 minutes, experts say.

[READ:Cellphones in School: What to Know]

Take Ownership of Wellness

Teens should be aware of all the drinks and foods they consume later in the evening. For instance, drinking caffeinated drinks — such as sweet tea or coffee — later in the day may make it difficult to fall asleep.

Exercise and movement should also be a priority for teens to help their body feel more tired.

“When they’re putting an emphasis on their nutrition, their exercise, and then their sleep, they’re going to just simply feel better and be able to be more engaged in class,” Saum says.

Use Bedroom for Sleep Only

A person’s bedroom should only be used for sleep — if possible — instead of a place to watch TV, play video games or work, experts say.

“It shouldn’t be seen as a stimulating environment,” Knee says.

He adds that if a teen does want to finish homework in their room, it’s better to study at a desk than in bed. Teens should also set their bedroom to a cooler temperature and avoid bright light exposure in the evening.

Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule

It may be easy for teens to sleep in late on the weekends if they don’t have any prior commitments, but try to keep a consistent schedule.

Some experts say it’s OK to have a nap or sleep in an extra hour or two on the weekend.

“We’re looking at average sleep over the week, so it’s OK to catch up,” Talib says. “But Sundays are not the best day to catch up because you have to wake up again on Monday morning. So Saturdays are a better time for catching up.”

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