Sleep problems lead to school problems

Sleep problems lead to school problemsIt probably comes as no surprise that researchers have linked problems with sleep to poor school performance. In fact, there is strong evidence that the effect of stress on schoolwork is actually related to the impact of stress on sleep! Studies have measured academic skills in a number of ways; teacher ratings, grades, individual and group achievement tests, specialized neurocognitive tests, and standardized intelligence tests have all shown that sleep is an important factor when it comes to schoolwork. The results are clear: even minor sleep disturbances can have a negative effect on academics. Studies have examined a number of problems and have found links to poor academics, including:

  • shortened sleep time
  • erratic sleep schedules (e.g., sleeping in on weekends!)
  • late bedtimes and waking times
  • poor sleep quality (e.g., sleep apnea)

One study showed that shortening sleep by as little as an hour had an impact on cognitive performance. Some researchers found that early school start times, which seems to be becoming increasingly common at the high school level, can affect test scores.

In a review of the data on sleep and schoolwork, Joseph Buckhalt and his colleagues suggested that, although little is known about the sleep problems of elementary-aged children, it is possible that sleep problems in infancy might continue later in childhood. Behavioural treatments have proven to be effective even for children with ADHD or other difficulties. Positive bedtime routines and consistent waking times have been found to be helpful in reducing sleep problems when used in conjunction with "graduated extinction." The extinction method in infants was popularized by Ferber and is also known as the "cry it out" method. The graduated extinction technique is a modified version of the approach in which parents respond to the child after a predetermined time. Although research has shown graduated extinction to be an effective way of reducing sleep problems, it is unacceptable to many parents who prefer a more "attachment based" approach, involving comforting the child. For elementary-aged children, reinforcement plans such as sticker charts, might encourage them to go to bed at bedtime and to stay there until morning.

Although the effectiveness of sleep interventions in adolescents have only recently been studied, behavioural interventions seem to be effective in this group as well. Scheduling consistent bedtimes and waking times, even on weekends, is important. Avoiding caffeine 4 to 6 hours before bed, and eliminating stimulating activities in the hour before bedtime, can also be helpful. Relaxation training can slow down the racing thoughts that sometimes interfere with sleep onset. For all age groups, parental education can help to prevent sleep problems that interfere with school performance!

You can read Buckhalt's work here.

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