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Make My Teenager Sleep... can you?

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Anne McNaught | 17:22 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Back in March, a story hit the news about a charity, Sleep Scotland, which was about to launch a pilot project in which pupils in two Glasgow schools would be given "sleep lessons".

My ears pricked up, because I was already working on BBC Brainsmart, an interactive guide to your brain and how to make the most of it. Good sleep was one of the essentials our psychology consultant Roger Redondo had mentioned many times. If you're sleep deprived, the research says, it has a massive effect on your ability to learn, because new memories need to be consolidated or they'll fade away, and this is what your brain does while you sleep.

We're all vulnerable - but teenagers more than adults for two reasons. Firstly, teens need nine hours sleep, not just eight. Secondly, their bedrooms are round-the-clock social hubs. Many of them are awake and online or texting hours after their parents have gone to bed. Sleep is something they'd like to eliminate if possible, not increase. Are you mad?

Non-sleeping teens must be a widespread phenomenon because the Sleep Scotland project attracted media attention from around the world. Fortunately it was happening on our doorstep. Our presenter, Clare English, had a personal interest in the form of a 14 year old daughter of her own.

We made contact with the co-ordinator at one of the schools, St Paul's High School, and they were very amenable to us recording the lessons, and the pupils' reactions. We'd do a 'before' and 'after' and see what happened. The big question: can you make a teenager sleep?

School pupils sitting on desks being interviewed

Well, can you make a horse drink water? Not if he doesn't want to. That was the message coming back after the initial lessons. The pupils had learned all the theory, and many of them seemed genuinely interested. But were they prepared, in the light of all the benefits of good sleep, to actually switch off their mobile phones at night...? No.

Jane Ansell of Sleep Scotland was not deterred. Cultural change, she says, takes a long time.

That's right of course. So we were taken aback by what happened next.

When Clare spoke to the pupils about the classes, they told us that what might get them more interested would be to do an experiment, in which they could test how much sleep affected their mental skills by playing a computer game before and after a few consecutive nights of good sleep.

We took them at their word, and returned to the school some weeks later to try it out. You can hear what happened on the programme, and read the pupils' own comments about it on the Radio Scotland website. It was astonishing. After three nights of going to bed "early", the boys' computer game scores had gone through the roof, and every single pupil was a convert to this new world of sleep.

Their schoolwork had improved too. One pupil said he was no longer struggling in maths; another said she'd become interested in chemistry now she could actually keep up.

In the words of one of the girls, "I would say to everyone out there who thinks it isn't cool to go to bed early that we didn't think so either until we tried it and if you forget about what other people think and do it for yourself you will see results."

So here's one answer to the question, how do you get a teenager to sleep? Persuade them to try it for themselves, and rope in some of their friends. Say, "No pressure. It's just a little experiment..." (and remove their laptop/mobile while they're not looking).

Make My Teenager Sleep BBC Radio Scotland, 11.30am, Wednesday 29th September and 10.30am, Sunday 3rd October. Read more about the programme in Clare English's blog post. While Claire Winter of the BBC Parent Panel asks are our children sleeping enough?.


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