Curse of the Zombie Teenagers

Curse of the Zombie Teenagers

Sometimes as a new mom, I feel like I am experiencing a small part of adolescence all over again. Sleepless nights, learning new skills and little control over hormones are just a few things that remind me of those teenage years.

The most debilitating of these “symptoms”? Definitely the lack of sleep. I feel like I can barely function some days.

While facilitating a Support Group at a local Alternative High School this week, we talked about school and discussed how they felt about it. With only one exception, everyone in the group mentioned tiredness and how it affected their school performance. They were falling asleep at their desks, unable to focus on their work, and too tired to even come to school some days. They were walking Zombies!

However, when I asked how they could make school better, none of them talked about getting more or better sleep. Isn’t that interesting? Even though sleep is the one thing they need, they didn’t seem to see how missing out on sleep or going to bed late could negatively impact their whole day.

A few weeks ago my son, Sawyer, went through a sleep regression that had him waking up every 2-3 hours through the night. I had gotten used to waking up once a night but two or three? I was thrown for a loop!

That week and a half, I noticed several things. I was unfocused. I was grumpy. I was lazy. I was emotional. I found myself apologizing to my husband more than usual. Now I am not saying that during normal weeks I am never unfocused, grumpy, lazy or emotional (because I am), but I notice significant increases in these areas when I am tired.

If tiredness can have this affect on me, imagine the impact that the lack of sleep can have on teenagers! According to this WebMD article and, there are several surprising effects that lack of sleep can cause:

It can cause accidents. Did you know that driving sleepy can cause similar reaction delays to driving drunk? When our students don’t get enough sleep, they could be a danger to others and themselves!

It can impair memory and learning. Not getting enough sleep can harm cognitive processes. This means that it affects alertness, focus, attention, and reasoning. When teenagers don’t get an adequate amount of sleep, they also won’t be able to remember what they experienced throughout the day, having a major affect on learning and retention.

It can lead to depression. Sleepiness can contribute to the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can also create a vicious cycle – lack of sleep causes depression, and in return, depression can make it hard to fall asleep. Our teenagers do not need another thing that leads to depression and anxiety.

It can cause health problems. Sleep deprivation can cause many health issues from heart disease to obesity. It makes sense if you think about it. Our bodies need sleep to function and when you take that away, your body suffers and tries to make up for it in other ways.

It can impair judgement. When teens (or people in general) do not get enough sleep, they cannot accurately assess events or experiences which can lead to a lack of judgement. This can also apply to a lack of judgment about the affect of sleep-deprivation!

Teenagers are in one of the most important periods of growth. Their brain is developing, their body is growing, they are learning to interact socially. To do these things positively and set them up for success in the future, they need sleep. Plain and simple, this is one of the best things you can teach your teenager today.

They don’t have to be Zombies just because they are teenagers. They can be functioning, smart, witty and alert – if they get the sleep they need!

Let’s encourage teens to turn off the television or gaming system, put down the phones and go to bed at a decent hour. They may push back at the request, but they will be thankful when they are healthy, productive, happy, and making good decisions.


How have you seen the impact of lack of sleep? What things can we do to encourage teenagers to get more sleep? Share your ideas – we would love to hear them!
Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
Lessons from “The Bad Kids”

Lessons from “The Bad Kids”

I am a huge fan of Netflix. In the mood for a comedy, drama, thriller or documentary? You can choose from thousands of TV shows and movies. While I typically watch Netflix for personal gain, I recently came across a documentary called The Bad Kids (you can also find it on iTunes and Amazon). I’ll confess – I am not a documentary person. Give me fiction and fairy tales all day! But this particular documentary intrigued me because I work with students just like the ones highlighted in this film. I work with “The Bad Kids” every week, and I wanted to see what I could learn from the heart and work of someone halfway across the country.

Before I go any farther, I would like to make a disclaimer that this post is not endorsing this film, saying that I agree with every part of documentary, or even asking you to go watch it. While an accurate portrayal of this population of students, there is extreme language used throughout the film. That being said, I found value in the methods and practices used by the film and believe that it is worth my time to share what I learned!

On their website, The Bad Kids summary is:

At a remote Mojave Desert high school, extraordinary educators believe that, more than academics,
it is love, empathy and life skills that give at-risk students command of their own futures. This coming-of-age
story watches education combat the crippling effects of poverty on the lives of these so-called “bad kids.”

It is so refreshing to see the media recognize excellent educators and administrators for the difficult work they do with students each and every week. We have the privilege of working with counselors, principals, teachers and staff who also believe that love, empathy and life skills can make a huge difference in the lives and academic careers of students – that is why they partner with us!

In this film, you see students who are in a tough place and deal with circumstances that most adults would struggle with. There is teen pregnancy, sexual assault, substance abuse, absent parents and so much more that they face in addition to their school responsibilities. There is no question that these “bad kids” have difficult lives (both by personal choices and unavoidable tragedy), but the Black Rock Continuation High School chooses to step in for these students who are at risk of dropping out of school completely.

While watching this film, I saw several important tactics that can not only benefit the work done with at-risk students but can be applied to any relationship with a teenager. One thing I have found in my work with Teen Life is that you don’t have to be a “bad kid” to desire love, empathy and help with challenges.


Teens need empathy.

For a refresher on empathy, please read my last blog post on the subject! But this documentary fully supports how much empathy and a listening ear matters to teenagers. At this particular High School, Principal Vonda Viland is a superb example of what empathy looks like and how it can affect a relationship. Students trust her, are honest with her and seek out her advice because they know that she will listen. And she doesn’t always have the answers. Sometimes, she admits that their life is difficult. And instead of subjecting them to a lecture she asks simple questions like, “What do you think needs to change? How would that decision affect your life? What needs to happen for you to get motivated?”

Empathy is a powerful tool.

Teens need to be held to a high standard.

Is life challenging for these teenagers or any teen in general? Absolutely. But they do not need to be babied or held to lower standards because of it. When you treat a teenager with respect and clear standards, they are more likely to rise to the occasion. I love that Principal Viland does not hold back any punches with her students. From their first day on her campus, she tells them what is expected and what the consequences are if these expectations are not met. She is not going to hold their hand, drag them out of bed or force them to come to school. But to stay in her school, students have to play by her rules and most do. In the film, you see so many students thrive under this straightforward approach. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.

When held to a high standard, teenagers have the opportunity to live up to their potential.

Teens need motivation.

Teens can be stubborn – but can’t we all? Most of the time, they don’t want to do something if it won’t benefit them in some way. And I understand that. I remember the frustrating days of learning about geometry and astronomy and wondering, “Will I ever use this information again?” What I love about The Bad Kids is that the teachers make an effort to put what they are learning into context for each student. For example, one of the boys loves music and playing his guitar but hates math. He is struggling and doesn’t see the point. Instead of getting defensive or giving up, his teacher puts it in perspective – you need math to play music. As she explains this concept, it clicks. He just needed the motivation to see past his current frustration and situation.

Motivation and inspiration could be the difference in a student graduating and dropping out.


Teens need celebration.

We need to celebrate our teenagers better! They are more likely to repeat good behavior when it is praised than to stop negative behavior when it is punished. Let’s be a positive force for our teens and get excited when they accomplish a goal. Principal Viland shows this all throughout the film. She celebrates when they come to school on a consistent basis. She even hands out certificates for completing credits and recognizes hard work in front of the entire school. She tells them when she sees improvements and recognizes when they avoid old habits. Celebration can be a small thing, but even something as small as a $5 gift card makes a huge impact on a teen who is trying to survive.

May we not get caught up in the bad things teens do, but intentionally look for ways to celebrate the good things!

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
How We Deal with “The Bad Kids” Part 2

How We Deal with “The Bad Kids” Part 2

Note to Reader: We have great respect for the administrators who have to make difficult decisions within their school districts. I am writing this blog post because I have personally seen great changes made among the school districts in our area addressing issues with “the bad kids”. 

Recently I spoke with a counselor at one of our alternative (disciplinary) schools. She told me a story about a young man who recently got sent back to his campus after trying to get re-instated at a new campus in his district (his family had recently moved). It turns out the principal at this school was this young man’s principal in 7th grade, and essentially, the principal denied this young man’s entry onto his campus because of the student’s bad behavior in middle school.

Let that sink in. After several years, this principal held a grudge against this student and denied access to traditional public education, forcing the student to go to alternative placement. Because of past sins, this student has been “marked” so to speak and will struggle to have access to the same levels of education as his peers.

This isn’t an isolated story. A big part of my group work is in alternative schools, and this story rises to the surface over and over. Most of the kids I work with got in trouble in elementary and middle school, and they developed a reputation. They were put on “the list” and feel singled out or watched by administrators. From a very young age, they were labeled “the bad kid”.

These are powerful messages, even if they might be earned in some way. They trickle down into the hearts of students who are told over and over how bad they are. Or, the message is sent that they are not wanted when they are repeatedly suspended or sent to alternative schools. After a while, they just accept they are “bad” and start playing the part.

Unfortunately, the statistics are starting to bear this idea out along racial and intellectual lines. Students of color or who are in the minority are much more likely to be suspended or expelled, especially if they have some kind of learning disability. One of our local major school districts suspended over half of the African American males in the district while over 25% of all students in the district were suspended or third partied. And, this is a huge district!

Studies have shown that students who are suspended or expelled are much more likely to drop out of school or repeat a grade. In fact, a study of all 7th graders in Texas over a three year period showed 31% of students who were suspended repeated a grade, compared to only 5% who didn’t get suspended.

For many reading this, it might seem like there is a little bit of blaming going on here. If the students just followed the rules, they wouldn’t be in trouble, right? Well, yes and no. When you look back thirty or forty years, school suspensions were very low. It was really hard to get suspended from school in the 70’s. But several factors, including Colombine in 1997 changed all of that. With Colombine, the idea of “Zero Tolerance” and putting police officers on school campuses became the norm. When the idea of “Zero Tolerance” takes root in an administration, many misbehaviors can fall under that pretense.

For those reading this post who might struggle with this concept, understand that things have changed dramatically on school campuses over the last 40 years. But our students are the ones suffering the long term consequences of “Zero Tolerance” and over suspending schools.

There is much more to say on this. In the meantime, if you want more context for the statistics I mentioned above, I encourage you to spend some time looking at these articles which will point you towards growing data showing these troubling trends.

The School to Prison Pipeline, explained – this is a great primer for this topic. Lot’s of links out to articles and research.

Out of school and off-track (An in-depth study out of UCLA on school suspensions)

I believe in my last post I promised some solutions, but I felt like discussing the problem a little further, while providing some context through research would help. In my next post, I plan to talk a little bit about what is being done to address some of these issues and some positive ways forward. Let us know what you think!

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
How We Deal with “The Bad Kids”

How We Deal with “The Bad Kids”

Becoming a father has taught me so much about myself, mainly my weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is impatience. When dealing with discipline issues with my kiddos, I tend to default towards more pragmatic methods like raising my voice, sending kids to their rooms, and not giving my kids the chance to talk or explain themselves. Typically this is done in the name of “teaching respect” but often has the opposite effect. When I get into the mode of punitive discipline, I sense my kids withdrawing from me, and often just tuning me out.

You see, I have smart kids. We all do. They have an intuition that goes way beyond our adult minds. While we are thinking about what needs to be done next and are always in a hurry, our kids are masters of what it means to be present in the “here and now”. Our kids don’t have to worry much about what is next (though they do ask about it some), so they are much more in tune with the feelings and actions of the adults in their lives.

When I opt solely towards punitive discipline (i.e. raising my voice, sending to room, spanking, shaming), I am making the choice to be practical without thinking about the long term implications of how I discipline. When I have an overwhelming load of responsibilities on my plate, it is much easier to resort to punishing (or over-punishing in a lot of ways) my kids for not doing what we ask them to instead of seeking more creative and sustainable ways of discipline and correction.

My wife is really good at this creative thing. My oldest son will get out of whack and instead of sending him to his room, she makes him run, do jumping jacks, and tons of push-ups until he is out of breath. You see, she understands that when he stops paying attention or gets whiny, he doesn’t need us to raise our voices. He needs us to help him re-center, re-connect, and reset. After he gets done running and jumping, we find he is much more focused and ready to listen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I often fail as a parent, but also when I observe students who have been labeled the “bad kid”. We do a lot of support groups in placement settings where students have been sent as a means of punitive discipline. When we encounter students in drug rehab or alternative schools, the reasons they get sent there are widely varied. Some students are there for drugs or violence, but others could be there for persistent dress code violations, disrespect, rule breaking, or other minor infractions. In many schools, the “zero tolerance” rule applies and students can be suspended, “third partied”, or expelled because often the school has no other recourse. It’s the protocol for many institutions, it is pragmatic, and it deals with the discipline issues cleanly.

Yet, there are long term consequences to punitive justice. Studies show that once a student is suspended or otherwise sent off their main campus, the likelihood of ending up in prison or dropping out of school increases dramatically. Since the mid-late 90’s when “zero tolerance” discipline started to make a comeback in public schools, the rate of suspensions and expulsions spiked, especially amongst African-American and Latino students. The numbers are staggering. If you want to know more about this, check out this research article about the long-term effects of punitive justice.

This isn’t a criticism of our administrators or teachers, but more an indictment of pragmatism. Often the most efficient and practical way of dealing with “the bad kids” is the way of convenience, not the way of correction. The long-term implications of how we discipline have an impact on graduation, imprisonment, restoration, and society as a whole.

In my next blog, I want to talk a little about some alternatives to punitive discipline in schools (and anywhere else students gather like church, after school, sports) and how there are real and effective ways to both correct and restore relationships without resorting to punitive measures.

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.

Motivation Monday: A Better Story in Action

Motivation Monday: A Better Story in Action

We are only 4 weeks away from the 7th annual #TL5K! 

If you would like to donate or help by becoming a fundraiser, visit our #TL5K site!

Currently, I am facilitating two support groups at a high school alternative campus. I see students who have been kicked off their campus for one reason or another, and because it is a temporary campus, I never know how many weeks I will actually see a particular student. However, one of my favorite things is getting to celebrate with them when they finally go back to their “home” campus. After a student;s final group, I always tell them, “I hope I never see you again.”

And I mean that!

After those teenagers have left the alternative campus, I hope to never see them back in trouble or back in that classroom. (Now, I would love to see them around town or in a different context, but you get my point!)

As strange as it may seem, that is somewhat of a goal for Teen Lifeline Support Groups. Our job is to equip, encourage and empower these students to live life better and succeed outside of the group time. Maybe this means that they think about consequences before acting, surround themselves with better friends, deal with stress in a healthy way or find a trustworthy adult to confide in.

We love hearing stories of past students who have moved on, grown up and chosen to live life better. Austin O’Neal is one of these students, and his story hits close to home for me because I remember hearing it back in High School when we both participated in a Teen Lifeline Support Group.

Austin has chosen to live a different story and encourage others because of his own experiences. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to listen to Austin’s story and how he is living out his “better life”!