Ian McMahan, Ph.D.

Ian McMahan Ph.D.


Mornings in High School—A Total Loss!

Is first period just a blur in your mind?

Posted Feb 28, 2013

Starting with puberty—and for the next 10 years—our young folk are biologically primed to stay up later and sleep later. How can they come to understand this, explain it to skeptical parents, and do something about it?

Kid asleep in class.

Slept from midnight to 6:30 AM.

Sleep deprivation is epidemic among teens. Anywhere from one-third to three-quarters suffer from some kind of sleep disturbance. In a survey of 3000 high school students, 85% had trouble waking up for school and tended to fall asleep during their first-period class. Laziness? Growing pains?

Not at all. It is mostly a matter of biology.

At puberty, the inner clock that governs our daily schedule changes its settings. Maybe before, it signaled time to sleep at 9 PM and wake-up time at 7 AM. Now the sleep signal comes at midnight or 1 AM and the wake-up signal at 9 or 10 AM. We know this shift later has its basis in biology: It happens earlier for girls, who enter puberty sooner than boys. It also happens earlier for both boys and girls who happen to reach puberty sooner than their age mates. And this shift affects teens all around the world, in cultures that range from pre-industrial to postmodern.

If you are a teen, you already know what we’re talking about, even if the biological explanation surprises you. And if your parents would let you keep the kind of schedule your brain is urging on you, everything would be fine. But no—you have to get to school just as early as all those little kids who go to bed at 9 PM and wake up with the birds. You may even have to get there earlier.

So there it is: late bedtime + early wake-up time = not enough sleep. By the way, teens actually need more sleep than adults (surprise!)—over nine hours a night. How many get it? And what can we do to make it happen?

To start with, school boards, politicians, and parents need to agree there is a problem and that something has to be done. Some towns and cities around the country have already tried starting high school later in the morning. The results? Attendance went up, lateness went down, and fewer students fell asleep in class.

So why hasn’t this solution spread everywhere? Partly because change to any long-time tradition sparks opposition. Parents, teachers, and administrators have expectations that go back to their own school years. They need to be persuaded that shifting the school day later is worth the hassle.

Teens also need convincing. After all, isn’t being able to stay up later a perk of getting older? Do you really want to miss your friends’ nighttime tweets and texts because you’re already in bed, eyes closed? How lame is that! But until going to sleep earlier becomes your personal goal, those early morning classes will go on being there somewhere out in the blur zone.

There are some simple, effective steps if you decide to take action:

  • Slowly move bedtime earlier. Fifteen minutes about every four days make this easy.  Keep it up until you reach a time that lets you get the sleep you need.
  • Sleep regular hours. Try to go to bed at the same time on weekends as you do during the week.
  • Get more morning light (see below*). Bright light as soon as you wake up helps keep your inner clock in sync and has a powerful effect on mood and energy.
  • Cut down on caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. All these have bad effects on sleep quality.
  • Cut down on evening light (see below*). TVs, computer screens, and brightly lit books make it harder to get to sleep. Dim them as the evening goes on. Install a PC app (see below*) that gradually reduces the blue wavelengths of light that have the greatest negative impact on your inner clock.
  • Unwind with a pre-sleep routine. Calm’s the word. A glass of warm milk, a warm bath, soothing music … whatever you find to put the day’s stresses at a distance.
  • Enlist your family and friends. Ask them to help, don’t keep it private. Even though sleep is not the most popular topic for discussion among teens, many of your friends have the same issues and will be grateful finding out what works for you.

Just imagine first-period class turning you on!


*For specific how-to’s, check out “The Challenges of Adolescence," Chapter 13 of Reset Your Inner Clock. The nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics now includes the book with CET's recommended light box.

Michael and Ian are co-authors of the 2013 Penguin paperback, Reset Your Inner Clock. They invite you to follow them on Twitter for news updates, opinions, and challenging Q-and-A’s. If you want to stay on top of body-clock matters, light therapy, and more — and take advantage of confidential, online self-assessments of inner clock time, depression, and seasonality — you should become part of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics community. Email PTuser@cet.org so we can stay in contact.

About the Authors

Ian McMahan, Ph.D.

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

Michael Terman, Ph.D., is a professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University.

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