It’s perhaps the oldest cliché in the parenting handbook: teenagers like to stay up late and sleep lengthy hours into the morning.
Of course, this isn’t the case for every adolescent. Yet in the age of tablets, PS4s, streaming platforms and global social media networks, the cliché holds truer than ever before- young people are more likely to experience disturbed sleep routines and inverted rest patterns, often staying awake long into the night in the blue glow of their smartphones and struggling to wake up feeling energized or alert when it’s time to start school.
What’s more, recent research suggests that these trends have only become increasingly pronounced during the recent coronavirus lockdown. In 2020, many parents have found that the daily routines of their kids have been a source of serious concern. Put simply, we all want to make sure that the young people in our lives are getting the sleep they need to take on the daily challenges of life- whether that’s home learning, staying physically active outdoors, or adjusting back into a daily school routine after months of pandemic restrictions.
But aside from technology, puberty and the impact of lockdown, have you ever stopped to wonder what other factors might affect your child’s mental and physical energy? It’s no secret that even with a steady sleep routine, patterns can vary a lot from child to child. Some young people are at their most energized in the early morning and need to start recharging their brains and bodies by the time sunset comes around. Other kids, meanwhile, can’t bear waking up until long after sunrise, and don’t hit their stride until well into the evening hours.
Which is your child- a morning lark, or a night owl? Depending on their age and stage of development, you might be thinking that you’ve seen them go from being one to the other. Or maybe you feel like they’re somewhere in between. In his book When: The Scientific Secrets Behind Perfect Timing, neuroscientist Daniel Pink calls this middle group the “third birds”- people who are mentally and physically at their best somewhere between the lark and owl extremes.
Funnily enough, these groupings don’t just tell us about individuals’ sleep and waking patterns; the type of bird your child is can also provide clues about their personality. For instance, Pink explains that if your son or daughter is more of a morning lark, they’re statistically likely to have traits associated with being positive, pleasant, and productive. Kids in this group often tend to be praised by their teachers as dedicated, punctual, competent, healthy and perhaps adept at responsible decision-making.
If your child is on the owlish side, by contrast, they might have received a harsh rap as a result of struggling to be at their best during times of day when others are productive and energized. Contrary to popular belief, this struggle isn’t always the fault of bad sleep patterns, too much late night Netflix or poor time management. Rather, as Pink notes, an owl child’s neurological clock really is set differently to that of their lark counterparts, potentially causing them a significant disadvantage in a world of school, play and work which is undoubtedly programmed to run mostly on lark time.
However, despite the difficulties, parents of children with owlish dispositions can take comfort in the fact that their kids might psychologically tend to possess many pronounced strengths of their own. Greater creativity, superior working memory, a well-developed sense of humour and (according to some tests) even higher intelligence are all associated with children and teens who have a more nocturnal body clock. Indeed, research has shown that many of the world’s greatest artists, scientists and innovators have been night owls.
If you’re wondering what’s behind all of this, it’s fair to say that much of the explanation remains uncertain. However, we do know that around 75% of humans are either morning larks or somewhere in the “third bird” category I mentioned above. If that group includes your son or daughter, then their brain’s internal clock follows a daily rhythm: peak (in the morning), trough (in the middle of the day), and recovery (toward the evening). However, night owls- about 25% of the human race- are biologically hardwired to experience something like the reverse of this pattern: recovery (morning), trough (the middle of the day) and peak (late in the evening).
These two distinct patterns go some way to explaining why children who are either larks or third birds are generally best equipped to tackle high concentration school work tasks in the morning shortly after getting up. It also sheds light on how an owl pupil’s brain won’t usually reach its alertness “peak” until the end of the day, often after the majority of the day’s schoolwork has been completed.
For parents of children working with We Make Academics tutors, it could be worthwhile to think about how your child’s bird type might be affecting their learning routines; if you have even modest influence over their daily routine, it could be possible to harness the potential of your child’s hidden pattern by helping them to arrange their daily habits and tasks in a smart way.
For example, if your daughter is a night owl who struggles with her chemistry homework, it could potentially help to schedule her support in the early evening, when her mind will be more alert and attuned to the challenges in front of her. Or, if your son is a third bird with morning lark-ish tendencies, consider whether some Saturday morning English tuition would suit his needs better than the same support on a Thursday night. Changes like this might sound small, but to morning larks, third birds and night owls alike they can sometimes make a world of difference.
Pink, D. H. (2018). ‘The hidden patterns of everyday life’ in When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing. London: Canongate. 2018, pp. 1-25.