Helping Educators and Parents Understand The Sleep Deprived Teen

Anyone who teaches or parents a teen knows the signs: the far off gaze, the red, puffy eyes, the constant yawning, the inability to focus on even simple tasks. More and more middle and high schoolers are coming to school exhausted. I had a recent conversation with a student who was exhibiting all of the signs above, and when asked why he was so tired, he candidly told me he rarely sleeps more than 6 hours in a night. When I asked why, he gave a variety of reasons: he works at his part-time job until 10 some nights, some nights he has school work to finish, other nights he just stays up late playing video games or chatting with friends on social media. His school start time of 9 a.m. is very reasonable, but he still often doesn’t get enough sleep.

I wish I could say that this student is an anomaly, but he isn’t. In fact, since the pandemic began and students’ school and home schedules were turned upside down, more of my students have reported sleep issues to me than I ever remember in my twenty years of teaching. This is one of the main reasons I chose The Sleep Deprived Teen by Lisa L. Lewis as one of my summer reads. Another reason is that I have an almost 14 year old in my house, and as a parent I want to be equipped with strategies in case she starts to experience sleep issues in the future. I found it to be an in-depth and helpful guide that is a very important read for parents and educators alike.

The book opens with some concerning statistics that confirmed what I already instinctively knew – most teens aren’t getting enough sleep! The National Sleep Foundation recommends 14-17 year olds get 8-10 hours of sleep per night. When the CDC first added “teen sleep” to its National Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2007, 31% of high schoolers said they got 8 hours of sleep on school nights. By 2019, the percentage went down to only 22%. And remember that 8 hours is the minimum amount of sleep teens need to function in a healthy way.

Author Lisa Lewis, a journalist who writes mainly about parenting, is candid about her own struggles with her sleep-deprived teenaged son. It was her son’s experiences that drove her to write the book and become a champion for healthy school start-times, not only in her home state of California, but across the country.

The book is broken into three parts. Part 1 is a deep dive into the history of sleep research, how the amount of sleep and the quality of sleep affects our bodies in general, and how and why school schedules were originally set. It also introduces the Stanford Summer Sleep Camp, which was a long-term sleep study done on children and teens back in the 1970’s. Out of this research came two very important findings about teen sleep:

  1. Kids need more sleep as they hit puberty and enter the teen years (8-10 hours per night).
  2. Teens’ internal body clocks also shift during puberty, and their melatonin levels rise later at night and don’t fade until later in the morning; this means they often start staying up later and sleeping in later.

Part 1 was definitely an important primer for the rest of the book, but it was honestly a little hard to get through. Some of the details about sleep research got a bit too granular for me, and I found myself skimming and moving to parts 2 and 3, where the more practical information was located.

Part 2 of the book covers the science of why sleep is so important to teens and the harsh realities of how lack of sleep affects them. I learned that adolescence is a time of major brain development, and it is in deep sleep that teens’ brains remodel. When they don’t get enough deep sleep, their brains literally can’t develop as they should. This can lead to processing issues, lack of motivation, lack of attention, and mental health issues. As Lewis writes, “sleep deprived teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, and be anxious, depressed or suicidal. At school, their grades are affected, and they are absent and tardy more often. Sleepy teen athletes are at greater risk for injury, and drowsy teen drivers are more likely to crash.” Part 2 was a sobering wake-up call that teen sleep issues need to be taken seriously by parents, and schools! I also think much of the information here should be taught to teens so that they understand how sleep impacts them and are then hopefully more motivated to take sleep seriously.

Part 3 of the book brings together lots of research on the causes of sleep deprivation in teens, including early school start times, unmanageable schedules, inappropriate technology use or technology addiction, and too much caffeine or other drugs. Lewis then offers both day-time and night-time strategies parents and schools can use to help teens have healthy sleep habits. I found this section of the book to be the most practical and helpful. I summarized some of the main strategies below.

  • Have ongoing conversations with our teens about the importance of sleep (no lecturing)
  • Set wind-down routines at night that include no technology one hour before sleep
  • Model good sleep behaviors
  • Help teens create more manageable schedules if they are too overworked (maybe fewer AP or honors classes, fewer athletics, fewer hours at a part-time job, etc.)
  • Advocate for later school start times or help teens find alternatives, like online classes, if a later start time isn’t possible
  • Encourage the use of a sleep tracker so teens can take ownership of their sleep schedule
  • Seek professional help if your teen is depressed, anxious, or showing signs of technology addiction

As educators, we could use The Sleep Deprived Teen in several important ways. First, we could utilize much of the research presented to advocate for healthier school start times, which the CDC has set as 8:30 a.m. for secondary schools. We could also advocate for alternative classes in the mornings for students who struggle with sleep, like flexible online classes or independent studies. As I mentioned previously, we could use the information in the book to have ongoing conversations with students; this could happen in small settings with guidance counselors or in whole-class settings in courses such as Health, Physical Ed, Biology, etc. Finally, at my school next year, we hope to do a book study around this title with a parent support group, since this is an issue affecting teens’ home and school lives.

Overall, I highly recommend checking out this book. I actually listened to the audiobook, mostly as I was driving my kids around to various camps, sports, etc. I really liked the narrator, and found it easy to listen to. If more parents and educators used the strategies the book provides, we could improve the lives of the teens we care so much about and possibly even save lives!

– Megan Panek


Megan Panek is a secondary Language Arts teacher and instructional coach. She currently teaches and coaches at a career and technical education (CTE) center in Virginia and believes in CTE with all her heart. She considers herself a life-long learner and is always looking to improve her craft.”

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