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.

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