Sleepy Teens Have More Trouble Learning : Shots - Health News Findings provide new evidence pushing back school start times, to let adolescents sleep and wake up when it's more natural, researchers say. It's going to bed late that creates problems.

Teen Night Owls Struggle To Learn And Control Emotions At School

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.