Back to school: How sleep affects kids' performance
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that sleep deprivation has become a serious public health epidemic in the U.S. An estimated 50-70 million Americans do not get the recommended number of resting hours at night.1 And for children, the health and educational consequences of lack of sleep can be profound.
"The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that school-age children get 9-12 hours of sleep at night," says Kristina Weaver, manager of Parrish Healthcare Sleep Center. "The Academy also recommends that teenagers get between eight and 10 hours of sleep. When their sleep cycles are disrupted or shortened, their school performance suffers and so does nearly every other area of their lives."
A child's ability to thrive in a social setting like a classroom involves several key factors: The ability to "read the room" or be aware of the reactions of other people is one of these factors. The ability to self-regulate or show self-control is another. Numerous studies have confirmed that both of these abilities can be hampered by fatigue.2
When children are not rested, they are less able to control their emotional reactions, less able to delay gratification and less able to transition smoothly from one task to another. These effects can be more noticeable in children who have underlying attention deficit disorders. Since these abilities develop during early childhood, it is especially important to make sure that young children get the rest they need so that they can develop the behavioral skill set they will need throughout their school years.
Researchers have broken down the process of learning into three stages: acquisition (when the brain receives new information); consolidation (when the brain organizes and processes new information); and recall (when the brain remembers and uses new information). When sleep is limited, people have trouble focusing and paying attention, which can lead to problems acquiring and grasping new information.3
Some studies have shown that when people are sleep-deprived, the brain automatically takes "micro-sleeps," short periods of drifting inattention during the day, which could interfere with acquiring new knowledge. But the loss of sleep also affects other stages of learning. Students acquire information when they are awake, and they recall that information when they are awake. But the crucial consolidation phase of learning appears to take place during certain sleep cycles. Scientists are still exploring the connections, but studies have shown that we need good rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to process complicated material. We also need adequate REM sleep to remember processes (how to perform a task).3
Physical and mental health
We have known for some time that the loss of sleep has profound effects on physical health. When people don't get enough rest, brain centers that control the desire to eat are stimulated, while the energy we need for activity drops. These biological processes may explain the higher risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes among sleep-deprived children.4
And the effects aren't just physical. Numerous studies have shown a higher risk for mental and emotional difficulties among children and teens who are rest-deprived. In one study, children whose sleep was disrupted for just two nights experienced more anxiety, and their ability to feel and remember positive experiences decreased.4
Another study revealed that teenagers who get just one hour less sleep are more prone to depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.5 And in their sleep-starved state, teenagers are also more likely to take risks: Drug and alcohol use and dangerous driving habits also spike when teens go without adequate rest.
"Parents must be the guardians of sleep," says Weaver of Parrish Healthcare Sleep Center. "We have seen that in households where bedtimes are strictly observed, kids — even teenagers — are better rested than their peers in homes where parents aren't as vigilant. The older they are, the more likely kids are to resist parent involvement in their bedtime routines, but moms and dads need to win this battle because the long-term consequences are so severe. And don't feel you have to go it alone. Contact a sleep support center if you need resources to help you."
As summertime dwindles and school resumes, shelve the devices, shut off the lights, and set a good example by taking care of your own sleep needs. It may also help to talk to your children about the science of sleep. Explaining in age-appropriate terms what happens in the brain when you sleep and when you don't may be the most important bedtime story you tell your children this year.