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How sleep loss impacts a student's ability to learn

It’s a scene teachers are all too familiar with: children yawning profusely during morning lessons, eye rubbing, heads down on their desk, lethargic and grumpy as the day wears on. Although it’s easy to shrug off as a student having a bad day, chronically tired students is an increasing problem in classrooms across the country.

In our culture, we place a high value on working, multi-tasking and “having it all”. Since there are only so many hours in a day, we often push ourselves late into the night to keep up with the demands this lifestyle presents. As adults, we over-ride our tiredness with caffeine and artificial lighting and this helps to mask how tired our bodies really are. We believe ourselves to be able to handle sleep loss without a problem and unfortunately, we have come to associate indulging our need for sleep as a negative trait, perhaps one that makes us weak or seem lazy.

Since adults don’t feel the effects of their masked chronic sleep loss easily, this attitude often trickles down into our student’s lives and their parents also mistakenly believe that their children are fine without the proper amounts of sleep too.

Teachers see another side to children however, that parents may not. Whereas parents may not believe that overscheduling with sports and activities late into the evening effects their child, teachers see the repercussions of sleep deprivation throughout the year with lethargic, un-cooperative, and un- focused students.

Being over-tired can affect a child’s overall well-being and therefore their ability to learn dramatically, so it’s time that we start focusing on it more. The first step is bringing awareness to how chronic sleep loss affects our students.

Learning: Children who don’t get enough sleep under perform. Researchers have found that children who lost one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development (1). That alone should make everyone involved in education take healthy sleep habits seriously.

Cognition development: Connections between the right and left hemisphere are strengthened when a child sleeps. (2) This connection helps with language development and impulse control skills.

Mood: Children who are tired are more cranky, irritable and less able to cope with the challenges of daily life.

Weight Gain: Children who are sleep deprived have an increase of obesity and diabetes. (3)

Memory: When depleted of sleep, working memory function is impacted. (4) Working memory is important for a multitude of skills necessary in the classroom such as being able to focus on an activity independently, follow short instructions, reading comprehension and interacting appropriately in social situations to name a few.

If we want our students to perform, develop and learn at their maximum level, we need to understand sleep’s effect better and make it a priority. Getting the proper amounts of rest should not be viewed negatively, but we should recognize healthy sleep habits as the foundation of good health and a crucial component for success in the classroom.


  1. Sadeh, A., Gruber, R. and Raviv, A. (2003), The Effects of Sleep Restriction and Extension on School-Age Children: What a Difference an Hour Makes. Child Development, 74: 444–455. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.7402008
  2. Kurth S, Achermann P, Rusterholz T, LeBourgeois MK. Development of Brain EEG Connectivity across Early Childhood: Does Sleep Play a Role? Brain Sciences. 2013; 3(4):1445-1460.
  3. Knutson, K. L. and Van Cauter, E. (2008), Associations between Sleep Loss and Increased Risk of Obesity and Diabetes. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1129: 287–304.
  4. Working Memory and Sleep in 6- to 13-Year-Old Schoolchildren MAIJA-RIIKKA STEENARI, VIRVE VUONTELA, E. JUULIA PAAVONEN, SYNNÖVE CARLSON, MIKA FJÄLLBERG, EEVA T. ARONEN Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 1 January 2003 (volume 42 issue 1 Pages 85-92 DOI: 10.1097/00004583-200301000-00014)
Posted by Joleen Dilk Salyn in Parent, General ← Previous Post Next Post →

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