We hear it all the time: It’s important to get a good night’s sleep. But how important is it when it comes to getting good grades in school?
A study by the University of Minnesota recently surveyed more than 7,000 high school students about their sleep habits and grades. The results? On average, the kids who were making A’s slept 15 more minutes a night than those getting B’s, who slept 15 more minutes than those getting C’s, and so on.
Hilary Justino, a middle school guidance counselor at Broadalbin-Perth Central School District, said she frequently sees the effect of lack of sleep on grades.
“When I started meeting with academically at-risk kids, I noticed that they looked tired,” she said. As it turned out, she was right. Many of them weren’t getting nearly enough sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends children ages 5-12 years get 10-11 hours of sleep a night. The amount for teenagers varies, as does the specific needs of individual children, but 8-10 hours a night, at least, is recommended for good health and mental functioning.
Justino said teachers often complain of kids falling asleep in class, and it seems to be a hallmark of poor academic performance. “There’s definitely a correlation between the two,” she said. “It creates a perfect storm when they aren’t sleeping well, because kids in the classroom are not engaged and learning when they’re tired.”
Justino has observed that tired students really can’t function well enough to do the complex problem solving teachers are asking them to do.
“Kids brains are made to learn, but their effectiveness is reflected in their sleep cycles,” Justino said.
Even if sleepy children manage to stay awake in class, it doesn’t mean they’ll actually remember the new material. “If the child isn’t getting enough sleep, whatever was in their short-term memory that day isn’t going to be retained,” Justino said. “Sleep is a time during which our brains process newly learned information and move it from short-term to long-term memory, so it’s especially important for students.”
A recent study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that sleep deprivation harms the plasticity of the brain (long-lasting functional changes in the brain that occur when we learn new things or memorize new information) and the ability to acquire and retain information, calling sleep “the investment needed to allow learning fresh the next day.”
Dr. Claudia Farrell of Community Care Physicians in Saratoga said lack of sleep can affect memory because of the way it harms focus and concentration. So, staying up late to study for that big test could easily backfire.
“A brain that is not well-rested won’t be able to retain as much information,” Farrell said.
Another study (published in the Public Library of Science) found that when healthy adolescents ages 10-14 were asked to perform a memory test with and without sleep, the children who had the proper amount of sleep were able to recall 20.6 percent more than those who were deprived of sleep before the test.
Justino said students are often surprised to hear about the significant effect sleep has on their studies, and parents don’t often think enough about the merits of a good night’s sleep.
Farrell said when talking to parents about issues their children are having, she frequently circles back to sleep. “Often the problem lies in the fact that the children simply are not sleeping enough,” she said. “If you are tired, you’re not going to feel healthy.”
Lots of problems her young patients have can be improved with the proper amount of sleep.
“They feel more energetic and are more able to stay on task,” Farrell said.
In addition to the brain drain, Farrell said long-term lack of sleep can put you at risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity and migraine headaches.
Experts suggest establishing a routine that includes powering down electronic devices like iPads and iPods at least an hour before bedtime to help settle the brain down. Farrell also suggested keeping TVs out of children’s bedrooms.
“Bright lights keep your brain wired,” she said.
The same goes for gaming devices. Justino said she’s heard tales of kids playing video games till all hours, and she thinks the more tired they get, the less they are able to self-regulate. “If a kid is tired, they’re not going to be as rational about the use of electronics.”
Justino offered the following tips for a good night’s sleep:
- Keep to a set bedtime every night and a set waking time every morning, even on weekends as much as possible. A firm schedule helps the body know when it’s time to sleep.
- Create a bedtime routine. Doing the same activities before bed each night helps signal your body that it’s time to sleep. The activities should be relaxing, like taking a warm shower or reading a book in bed. Try to keep the lights as dim as possible as you prepare for bed, too, to signal the body that it’s time to settle down.
- Set limits on after-school activities. There are many positives associated with children being engaged in extracurricular activities, but it’s just as important to make sure students do not have to dip into what should be their “sleep” time to take part in those activities.
- Turn off electronics/screens an hour before bedtime. People who use devices with screens (including television) right before bed take longer to get to sleep. Cell phones should be turned off to avoid the distraction of incoming calls and messages.
- Cut out caffeine after noon. Caffeinated beverages and foods high in sugar can both impair sleep.
- Get plenty of exercise during the day. This will help you feel tired at night. However, vigorous exercise right before bedtime can have the opposite effect – try to slow down any physical activity at least an hour before bed.
- Pay attention to the room where sleep is taking place, and look for ways to make it feel more comfortable and relaxing. If noise from other parts of the house is a concern, your child may find earplugs helpful.
Children and Sleep, from the Sleep Foundation
What Sleep Is and Why All Kids Need It from KidsHealth.org
Sleep: What Every Parent Needs to Know by American Academy of Pediatrics
NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman