Varda Epstein: 10 Back to School Sleep Tips for Teens

by Varda Epstein

Remember when your teen was a newborn, how you longed for him to sleep for just a few hours straight so you could get a bit of shuteye? And now? You can’t wake him for love or money. Sleep, sleep, sleep. The clock says it’s afternoon, but he’s still in a near-comatose state.

During summer vacation, you both get a break. You don’t have to wake him for the hundredth time, the panic level in your voice rising as you realize he’s never going to make it to school on time. You can let him sleep ‘til the cows come home.

But as August draws to a steamy close, it nags at you, those future mornings where you won’t be able to roust him out of bed. You’re thinking it’s something you’d better get started on, getting him used to a regular sleep schedule. That way, when the school year begins, maybe he’ll be on track.

Zombie-Like Trance

According to the National Sleep Foundation, school starting times are at odds with a teen’s natural circadian rhythms. A teen needs 9 ¼ hours of sleep nightly. And you can’t realistically get a teen to sleep before 11 PM. These facts all but guarantee your teen will be late for school and in a zombie-like trance when he gets there, at that.

Teens attending ChillZone, the afterschool program funded by Kars for Kids can attest to the conflicting need of teens for sleep with school starting times. Countless times, teens tell their ChillZone mentors the same tale of woe: they’ve slept through geography or French class and are in a panic, knowing they have a test the next day. The program’s mentors do the best they can to get the kids up to scratch, but the bottom line is that teens need more sleep.

Some schools have been canny enough to institute later school starting times. Even a starting time of 9:30 AM can make the difference between a classroom full of groggy, spaced-out students and one filled with kids awake enough to learn. Later starting times is a practice that should be widely adopted. Schools that do adopt such measures find that kids don’t go to bed later. Instead, they get five more hours of sleep a week!

In the meantime, since the vast majority of schools haven’t yet changed their starting times here are some tips for getting teens back on track with sleep:

Resetting The Clock

Make your teen an active part of the discussion by asking him what he thinks might help him fall asleep and awaken earlier and then reassure him you’re standing by to help (within reason).

Have dinner at an earlier hour to synch all evening activities toward an earlier bedtime.

Shut down all media (computer, television, phone) half an hour before bedtime. Media acts as a stimulus and prevents sleep.

Suggest your teen take a warm bath or shower to help him get sleepy.

Have your teen set his alarm clock for 9:30 AM and go to bed at 12 midnight, no matter what, four nights in a row.

Now set the alarm clock for 8:30 AM and move bedtime back one hour to 11 PM for the next four days.

After that, set the alarm clock for 7:30 AM and have your teen go to sleep by 10 PM. This gives him time to shower and eat breakfast and still get to school by first bell.

Be flexible with the no-media-half-an-hour-before-bed rule. If classical music helps your teen fall asleep, an iPod may still be pertinent. Other things to try: white noise recordings or a sleep hypnosis app.

Keep the conversation an ongoing thing. If your teen finds he tosses and turns and can’t get to sleep, be empathetic. Offer further suggestions of what he might try the next night. And reinforce for him the fact that when the alarm clock goes off, he must get out of bed. That will help him adjust his internal clock every bit as much as getting into bed an hour earlier.

Last but not least, reassure your teen that while it might be hard to adjust to a new and slightly unnatural sleep schedule, once he gets there, it will be a much easier task to stay on track.

Varda Epstein writes on education and parenting as the communications writer at Kars4Kids, a car donation charity whose proceeds fund children’s educational initiatives.