Children and Sleep: Tired Brains Suffer in School

Hello! Is there any research that shows a time of day for learning, retention of information, and developing skills that is better than others? Are there certain groups of people that do better at certain times of the day or does it depend more so on the individual?

At this facility, our morning classes are starting earlier and earlier. Over the past few years, they’ve moved the start times from 7:40 to 7:20 to 7:10 and are now proposing 6:45. The ages of my students are widespread, but a majority of them are in their 20s.

Thank you.

Michelle, Rush City, MN

You are on the right track, Michelle, when you write, “Does it depend more so on the individual?” Distinguished education researchers Rita and Kenneth Dunn addressed this question some years ago and found that the best time for learning is all over the map, or should I say clock? Sleep experts explain that some of us are “nightowls” meaning that we are more alert late in the day and very groggy early. “Larks” on the other hand are at their best in the morning.

That said, a rested brain—whether nightowl or lark---is key to learning. In fact, sleep deprived students are at a real disadvantage when it comes to concentration, memory, impulse control, and learning.

Performance gaps
A clinical psychologist at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Avi Sadeh, found a significant performance gap between sleep deprived and well rested students. Students who got just one less hour of sleep per night for three nights in a row experienced a cognitive slide equivalent to two grade levels. A researcher at the University of Minnesota found that A-average students sleep more than B-average students sleep more than C-average students and on down the line. When it comes to children and sleep, there are huge academic consequences to even small bits of sleep deprivation. This is scary when we realize that every age group in the US is not getting as much sleep as they need:

Age:Goal: Actual:

Elementary 10-11 hrs 9.5
Pre-teens 9.5 8.0
Teens 9.5 7.5

Teenage nightowls

The sleep/wake cycle shifts during adolescence, making it even more difficult to give the brain a rest. Many elementary school-age larks naturally turn into teenage nightowls, putting their circadian rythyms at odds with their alarm clocks. I don’t think that starting classes as early as 6:45 AM is a good idea for young people. Schools and school districts that are paying attention to the brain research on children and sleep are actually moving starting times later rather than earlier.

Watch out for sleep thieves

Regardless of when school starts in the morning, make sure that your child is taking advantage of the sleeping hours they do get. You might send your child to bed on time only to find her exhausted at breakfast the next morning. Before you send her in to a sleep clinic - check for sleep thieves in her bedroom. Teens who send and receive text messages all night have little opportunity to get into the deep sleep their brains need to recharge. If this is the case, the best advice for a good night's sleep is to get technology out of kids' bedrooms.

Here are some parent tips on children and sleep and we've podcasted about brains and sleep if you want to learn more.



Dr. Dave

Want to explore some of the research?

A. Sadeh, R. Gruber, and A. Raviv, "The effects of sleep restriction and extension on school-age children: What a difference an hour makes." Child Development 74 (2003) 444-455.

. Wolfson and M. Carskadon, "Sleep Schedules and Daytime Functioning in Adolescents," Child Development 69 (1998): 875-87.

K. Wahlstrom, "Changing Times: Findings from the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times." NASSP Bulletin 86 (2002): 3-21.

L. Wasowicz, "Sleepless Hours Exact a Huge Toll," United Press International, December 31, 2003.