Take control of your inner clock

Mornings in High School—A Total Loss!

You’re bleary-eyed and dead to the world—so what’s the purpose? Is it your fault, or the system’s? You guessed it: it’s the System. Which must be tweaked a bit. Parents, teachers, and school boards: Take note! Read More

When I was young

I had to do farm labor before school. This generally meant getting up around 5 am, doing chores, getting cleaned up, and then going to school, by which time I was wide awake, and then being tired by 9 pm. I found that getting up was the key; if a person forces themselves to get up, tiredness is more likely to happen when it should. Sleep in, and hose the whole schedule.

I ended up sticking with that schedule pretty much my whole life, which made socializing with friends difficult, because they want to stay up all night. Sometimes you have to choose.

Incidentally, expecting schools to change schedules is pretty extreme. What about parents with multiple kids, trying to arrange child care around work and school? That becomes harder if the schools are all on different schedules.

Dear Fly on the wall, Thanks

Dear Fly on the wall,
Thanks very much for your comment.
People (teens included) have an amazing capacity to bend their sleep/wake cycle to fit their circumstances. Consider those who work shifts that change every few weeks, or old-time sailors doing 4 hours on, 4 hours off, around the clock, for weeks at a time. Or, in your example, farm kids who get up way early to do chores, then trudge off to school. But the fact that you not only coped then but kept up a similar schedule as an adult suggests that you are one of those natural “larks” whose inner clock is set to prefer an early-to-rise/early-to-bed lifestyle. Which is fine! The problems start when someone is forced to fit into a schedule that runs against their natural pattern—as with most teens, who are more owl-ish than you but have to follow a lark-ish schedule during the school week.
As for expecting schools to change, lots of districts already have staggered start times, with all the difficulties you point to. But generally, they stagger them so that the high school students start the earliest, just the opposite of what we are suggesting. Even switching to a uniform start time would be an improvement on that!

Yes, I realize it's easier for some than for others

and I feel a lot of sympathy for anyone on shift work. The reason my system worked for me was long discipline; I tried staying up with my friends one night per week, and it screwed up the whole week! I have no idea how shift workers manage, and I'm concerned because I may end up one myself.

One thing I have found useful, however, is to pick a time to get up that leaves time to truly wake up before having to do anything. Don't roll out of bed half an hour before class starts, give yourself time to drink a cup of whatever gets you going, maybe eat breakfast, wiggle around a little before you need your brain. At least then you can function, even if it's not your optimal timing.


Sort of tells you who's in charge...

I've read this argument for decades now ... with no real movement to change. So all I can assume is that "school is for adults, run by adults, managed by adults, and measured by adults". A better environment for teens - forget it!

If teens had a powerful union

they might get what they want.

Hi Doug-- Good point... but

Hi Doug--

Good point... but another point is that so few teens know why they have such difficulty with early rising. And there are far too many people out there to tell them they're simply lazy! If more teens understood the underlying biological processes, they could feel better about themselves and, if so inclined, use the tools of chronotherapy to change the sleep/wake patterns they find problematical.


Why aks students to change their biological processes using chronotherapy if delaying the roster with 2 hours (will also mean 2 hours later finishing the day)?

It's a pet peeve of mine, but

It's a pet peeve of mine, but I feel like teenagers don't get enough credit. We're just unexperienced adults. We understand that it's probably a bad idea to stay up all night even if we want to tweet in order to not be "lame" and stay up later than little kids now that we're big kids.

I know I'm sleep deprived from the way I fall asleep immediately when I get to bed no matter what. I can have caffeine an hour before I go to bed and it won't change anything. It doesn't matter how much I have to think about or if I'm worried about something. I fall asleep immediately when I decide I want to sleep, and on the weekends I get to sleep so much earlier and sleep for 10-12 hours. It's not the temptation of twitter that's keeping me up, it's homework. I would absolutely love to go to bed at a reasonable time but I don't have that luxury.

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Ian McMahan, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a lifelong writer.


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