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Teen Night Owls Struggle To Learn And Control Emotions At School

Nov 3, 2016

It's hard for Zachary Lane to wake up in time for school every day.

"I have four alarms set and it still takes me a long time to wake me up," says Lane, a 17-year-old high school junior in Zionsville, Ind.

He says he regularly gets detention for being tardy. "I get to school and I'm talked to like I'm attempting to skip school — like I'm attempting to be truant," he says. "I feel terrible. It's awful."

And when Lane does make it to class on time, he has a hard time focusing.

"I feel kind of like lagging behind myself," he says. "I don't feel totally there."

To try to better understand kids like Lane, researchers surveyed 2,017 students in 19 schools in Fairfax County, Va., about a variety of factors related to sleep. They were in seventh to 12th grades.

The researchers wanted to know more about the associations between the amount of sleep students get, how sleepy they are in the daytime and a brain function known as self-regulation — the ability to control emotions, cognitive functions and behavior.

Night owls tend to have the hardest time with self-regulation, the researchers found. These students have more memory problems, are more impulsive, and get irritated and frustrated more easily.

The study, led by Dr. Judith Owens and colleagues, appears Thursday in the journal Pediatrics. Owens is director of sleep medicine at Boston's Children's Hospital.

Answers to one set of questions in the online survey allowed researchers to determine a student's so-called chronotype, a measure of when a person's biological clock makes them naturally inclined to sleep. It uses a scale that ranks someone's "morningness" or "eveningness."

"It's a preference toward either being a relative morning lark — in other words: You like to go to bed earlier and get up earlier," Owen says. "Or, you're more on the night owl spectrum: Your biological preference is to go to bed later and get up later."

The researchers discovered that students who regularly go to bed late tend to be both sleepier during the day and have more trouble with self-regulation, regardless of how much sleep they actually report getting.

"The take-home message here is that it's not just how much you sleep, it's when you sleep," she says. Because teens tend to be night owls, Owens thinks schools should start classes later.

"Getting these kids enough sleep and appropriately timed sleep is necessary for optimal self-regulation," she says. "If you don't have enough and appropriately timed sleep, then you're going to compromise your ability to have these kinds of skills."

Early school start times force students to start classes when "their brain is asleep, essentially, or it wants to be asleep," says Dr. Sujay Kansagra, who studies sleep at Duke University.

"Starting schools late helps cater to where adolescents would function at their best," says Kansagra, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study.

More schools are starting later, or are considering following the recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But most schools still require kids to show up for class when their brains would rather be snoozing, according to previous studies.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

New research addresses a question faced by many parents. Why do some kids have a harder time than others getting out of bed for school? Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Zach Layne's (ph) a total night owl. And that makes mornings tough, really tough.

ZACH LAYNE: I have four alarms set. They're all at max volume. I have two alarm clocks. One of them has one alarm. One of them has two alarms. I have an iPhone 5 where I have the ringer on at the max volume and it still takes a long time to wake me up.

STEIN: Zach's 17. He gets thrown into detention constantly for being late to his high school in Zionsville, Ind.

LAYNE: And then I get to school and I'm talked to like I'm attempting to skip school, like I'm attempting to be truant, that I'm committing an act of delinquency. I feel terrible. It's awful.

STEIN: When he does make it on time, Zach struggles to focus in his first class.

LAYNE: I feel like a kind of, like, lagging behind myself. I don't feel totally there.

STEIN: To try to understand kids like Zach, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 middle and high school students and asked them all kinds of stuff, including when they naturally like to sleep.

JUDY OWENS: This is what's known as chronotype.

STEIN: Judy Owens of Boston Children's Hospital led the research.

OWENS: It's a preference towards either being a relative morning lark. In other words, you like to go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Or you're more on the night owl spectrum.

STEIN: It's the night owls that have the hardest time in school, and not just because they're sleepy. Owens discovered that night owls have big trouble with self-regulation.

OWENS: That is the brain's ability to control emotions, cognitive functions and behavior. Things like being impulsive, taking unnecessary risks, emotional regulations, you know, how upset or easily frustrated or irritated I get.

STEIN: Owens discovered that night owls have more of these kinds of problems, regardless of how much sleep they actually get.

OWENS: It's not just how much you sleep, it's when you sleep.

STEIN: And because teens tend to be night owls, Owens thinks schools should let kids sleep in more.

OWENS: If you don't have enough and appropriately-timed sleep, then you're going to compromise your ability to have these kinds of skills.

STEIN: Other researchers agree. Sujay Kansagra studies kids' sleep at Duke.

SUJAY KANSAGRA: By forcing them to wake up at really early hours, you're really just putting them in a state that's ready to fail. They're in school at a time where their brain is still asleep essentially, where it wants to be asleep. And so naturally they're not going to do well.

STEIN: More and more schools are starting later, or at least considering it. But most still require teens to show up for class when their brains tend to be still asleep. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.