Sleep and School Performance

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Roughly two-thirds of high school students report that they do not get enough sleep, yet research shows that getting adequate rest is vital to school performance and overall health. Failing to get the recommended hours of sleep each night can cause issues with concentration, grades and test scores, and the motivation to achieve.

Learning about the benefits of sleep for school performance may help students recognize the risks of skipping sleep and the advantages of building healthy habits.

How Does Sleep Affect Learning?

Sleep is vital for students to learn new information at school, home, and as they interact with the world around them. In order to retain knowledge, the brain must organize new information and determine which details are most important. Sleep plays a crucial role in this process, helping the brain to integrate valuable information and release unnecessary details.

As a person rests, they alternate between two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Both types of sleep are important for memory and learning. Many sleep experts believe that NREM sleep plays a role in learning knowledge or facts, while REM sleep is thought to help with learning motor skills and emotional memory.

In addition to helping learners retain new information, sleep supports the physical, mental, and emotional health needed to think clearly and perform in academic programs. Students who skip bedtime or have trouble sleeping tend to perform worse in school and may encounter a variety of challenges when trying to learn.

  • Attention difficulties: Without enough sleep, students may feel tired and have difficulty maintaining the attention needed to learn. They may respond more slowly and perform poorly on activities that require speed and accuracy.
  • Diminished performance: Classroom performance requires skills like problem solving, time management, impulse control, and organization, all of which are negatively affected by sleep loss.
  • Behavioral challenges: Research shows that aggressive and uncooperative behavior can become a challenge when young students do not get enough sleep. Outside of the classroom, underslept students are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors that could interfere with study time.
  • Mood changes: Sleep loss can increase negative feelings, irritability, and anger. In adolescents, insufficient sleep is linked to depression, anxiety, and feeling hopeless about the future. Younger students may experience temper tantrums or meltdowns.
  • Reduced immunity: Research shows that regularly losing sleep can lead to a weakened immune system. Likewise, there is evidence that poor sleep can increase the risk of developing a common cold.
  • Health issues: Students who do not get enough sleep may be at increased risk for certain health conditions. Research shows an association between sleep loss and metabolic and cardiovascular issues, as well as headaches, chronic fatigue, and pain.

How Much Sleep Do Students Need?

The amount of sleep a student needs for optimal performance depends on their age. Children generally need more sleep than teens and adults. While the amount of sleep people need may slightly decrease with age, getting an adequate night’s rest is important for students of any grade level.

Student Group Recommended Amount of Sleep
Preschoolers (3-5 years) 10-13 hours
School-age children (6-13 years) 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17 years) 8-10 hours
Young adults and adults (18 years and up) 7-9 hours

Preschoolers

The term preschooler generally refers to children 3 to 5 years of age. It is recommended that this group sleep between 10 and 13 hours in a 24-hour period, including time spent napping.

The early childhood years are a time of rapid growth, development, and learning. For this reason, preschool age children require more sleep than school-age children, teenagers, and adults.

School performance is not measured in preschool-age children the same way it is in elementary, middle, or high school students. However, there are associations between sleep loss and memory, attention, impulse control, and problem solving in this age group. Early deficits due to sleep loss may make it more challenging for children to thrive in a structured classroom setting.

Elementary Schoolers

Elementary school students are school-age children, generally between 5 and 12 years of age. It is recommended that students in this age group sleep between 9 and 11 hours per night. Unfortunately, almost a third of elementary schoolers may be showing up to school without adequate sleep.

Reasons that elementary schoolers lose sleep include resisting bedtime, staying up after parents think they are asleep, and waking up during the night. Toys, cell phones, televisions, and other electronic devices in the bedroom can easily be used after bedtime and lead to students feeling tired at school.

Like children in other age groups, school-age students can experience changes in mood, attention, memory, and behavior when they do not get enough sleep. Helping elementary school students develop healthy sleep habits may prevent problems as they transition into middle and high school.

Middle and High Schoolers

Middle school and high school students range in age from 11 to 18 years old. Preteens and teenagers in this group need 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. As adolescents develop physically, mentally, and socially, they are faced with new challenges to sleep. Studies suggest that roughly 60% of middle school students and 70% of high school students do not get enough sleep on school nights.

A growing body of research suggests that physiological changes during puberty shift young people’s circadian rhythm, which then affects their sleep schedule. As their circadian rhythm changes, many adolescents stay up later at night and sleep longer in the morning.

Early school start times combined with increases in homework, social activities, sports, and part-time work can leave fewer hours for sleep. Some studies suggest that a later bedtime is associated with a lower GPA, while a consistent sleep schedule and an earlier bedtime is associated with better test scores.

Adolescents that do not get enough sleep are at risk for increased school absences. Without enough sleep, middle and high school students may also develop behavioral issues that can affect attendance and school performance. Unhealthy behaviors like bullying and physical violence, as well as high-risk activities like drug and alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and unsafe sex have all been linked to inadequate sleep.

College Students

Young adults and adults 18 years of age and older need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Many college students find it challenging to find enough time to sleep, and 70% of students in college report getting fewer than eight hours of sleep per night.

A common cause of sleep loss in college students is poor sleep hygiene, which describes a person’s sleep-related habits. College students may be tempted to consume things that interfere with sleep, like alcohol and caffeinated drinks. Students may also use electronics like computers, cell phones, and televisions close to bedtime. Making matters worse, college students often combat daytime sleepiness by using more caffeine, which can further disrupt sleep and lead to a cycle of sleep deprivation.

College students may also stay up all night and pull an all-nighter to prepare for an exam or catch up on school work. Unfortunately, staying up all night does not translate to better performance. In fact, one study suggests that sleeping can improve test scores almost 20% compared to students that stay up all night.

Like other adults, college students may experience a variety of negative effects from a lack of sleep. Changes in alertness, reasoning, and attention can make it hard to focus in a lecture or exam. Mood changes like irritability, anxiety, and depression can also make it difficult to prioritize studying and homework.

Reasons Your Student May Not Be Getting Enough Sleep

While it is well-established that sleep is important for learning, memory, and school performance, getting enough sleep is challenging for students of all ages. A variety of factors may be responsible for students failing to get a good night’s rest.

  • Increased use of technology: Tablets, cellphones, and laptops are increasingly becoming an invaluable tool for students of all ages, making these devices an easy distraction during the evening hours. A number of studies show that using electronic devices too close to bedtime leads to staying up later and not getting as much sleep.
  • Not making sleep a priority: Students face a long list of demands on their time, from long days of classes and homework to athletics, jobs, and social activities. With all of these pressures, it is tempting to sacrifice sleep for productivity.
  • Sleep disorders: As many as 50% of children and teenagers experience a sleep disorder. Examples of common sleep issues in children include sleepwalking, sleep talking, sleep apnea, and insomnia. Early intervention is important, as symptoms of insomnia can continue into adulthood.
  • Inconsistent sleep schedules: Students with full schedules often try to make up lost hours of sleep on the weekend. While that may seem like a good idea, inconsistent sleep schedules can disrupt the body’s internal clock and make it harder to sleep.
  • Health issues: Students of all ages may experience anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and chronic health conditions that can disrupt sleep and interfere with school performance.

Tips for Helping Students Get More Sleep

For both college students and school-age children, simple strategies can help ensure a good night’s rest. Improving sleep hygiene can help students of all ages get more quality sleep and perform their best at school.

Tips for Preschoolers and School-Age Students

Establishing healthy sleep habits at an early age may help preschool and school-age children  thrive at school. These habits help make sleep a priority and promote quality rest.

  • Create a regular bedtime routine: People of all ages, especially children, can benefit from developing a consistent bedtime routine. Activities like setting out clothes for the next day, taking a bath, brushing teeth, and reading prior to bed can help children prepare for sleep.
  • Be consistent with bedtimes: Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, even on weekends, helps children develop a healthy sleep schedule. A regular sleep schedule helps the body adjust to the time of day, causing children to feel more sleepy when it is time to go to bed.
  • Design the bedroom for sleep: Bedrooms that are cool and dark, with the exception of a dim night light, are best for sleeping. Ensuring the room is quiet also helps when it comes to promoting healthy sleep habits.
  • Limit artificial light before bed: Computer and TV use in the evening hours may make it more difficult for some children to sleep.
  • Be active during the day: Getting exercise during the day can help children fall asleep more easily. To protect sleep, it is best to avoid strenuous exercise the last few hours of the day.
  • Set a good example: Adults should model healthy sleep hygiene for children, demonstrating the importance of being active during the day, maintaining a consistent bedtime, and limiting electronics before bed.

Tips for Preteens, Teenagers, and College Students

Older students typically have established beliefs about sleep and existing bedtime habits. In these age groups, it is common for social engagements, school, sports, electronic devices, and other distractions to crowd out time for sleep. Older students can take additional measures to cultivate good sleep hygiene.

  • Turn off screens: Electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and televisions can be a distraction, and the light emitted by these devices can make the brain think it is time to be awake. If devices can’t be removed from the bedroom, set a time at which all devices are shut down or put on silent.
  • Be mindful of food and drink: It is best to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and large meals in the late afternoon and evening. If you are hungry before bed, consider having a light snack.
  • Spend time outside: It is important to spend time outside each day to get fresh air and exposure to daylight. Light is important for timing a person’s circadian rhythm and helps people stay awake during the day and feel drowsy when it is time to go to sleep.
  • Avoid late-day naps: Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but taking one too late in the day can make it more challenging to fall asleep at night and get a good night’s rest.
  • Optimize the bedroom: Having the right sleep environment can help students get a better night’s sleep. Bedrooms should be quiet, dark, and a cool, comfortable temperature for sleep. For even better rest, remove anything that could be distracting at night, like clocks, electronics, and anything that could make noise.
  • Make time for exercise: Exercising at least 30 minutes most days can make it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep, and improve sleep quality.

Resources for Parents and Students

  • Sleep Recharges You: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine provides teaching guides focused on different grade levels, as well as videos, student activities, and quizzes to raise awareness about the importance of sleep among students.
  • School Starts Too Early: This fact-filled page on school start times from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights the benefit of later school start times and the role school officials, parents, and health care professionals can play in promoting healthy sleep.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens: This division of the National Institutes of Health provides information on drug use as well as mental and emotional health for teens, parents, and teachers.
  • Student Health: This website from the federal government provides a broad range of general health information for K-12 students.

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