It has been really exciting to see the development of sleep lessons for young people, developed by Dr Michael Farquar in association with the PSHE Association. I have long believed that good sleep is a key element contributing to the health of teenagers. It is hugely encouraging to see that schools and the general public are at last taking this seriously.
As part of the wider range of research on brain development in adolescence, we have learnt that the hormone melatonin is released later at night in young people than in adults. Melatonin is the hormone which signals that it is time to go to sleep. This finding, that melatonin is released later in teenagers, is critical as it highlights a key reason why many teenagers find it hard to go to sleep at night.
This has big implications. Sleep is important for teenagers, probably more important that it is for younger children. If young people have to get up early for school, they may be missing some hours of much needed sleep. Research tells us that sleep deficit (less than seven hours a night) can have a negative influence on both learning and behaviour.
Why is sleep so important? Firstly it is the time when growth hormones are released. Adolescence, particularly early adolescence, is of course a time of significant growth and development. Secondly we have learnt that something very important happens to memory during sleep. It is a time when memories collected during the day are consolidated. The brain is really busy during sleep, so learning is affected if the individual is not getting enough sleep. A good book on this is “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker (2018).
The idea of providing sleep lessons in school is so that the problem of sleep loss can be overcome. It seems unlikely that schools will agree to what is known as “ delayed starts”, i.e. starting the school day at 10.00 or 11.00. Trials with this plan have not been popular with teachers or with parents.
However if schools can include lessons on the importance of sleep, and offer advice to young people on how to overcome the melatonin problem, this can only have a positive influence on school performance and on the emotional health of students.
Here are some ideas about developing good sleep patterns for teenagers:
- Turn off all digital devices at least a half hour before bedtime;
- Turn lights down, put on soothing music;
- Have a hot drink of some sort (without caffeine);
- Most important of all, get into a good sleep routine. Routines make all the difference;
- Lastly, many teenagers may find these suggestions hard to carry out. This is where adults come in. Parents and carers can play a key role in helping in the development of these routines.