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Why Healthy Sleep Is Vital For School Success

Sophia Gardner

Apr 11, 2016

Not only is sleep critical in the functioning of all body systems, scientists have found a distinct correlation between our ability to learn and process memories, and our sleeping habits. Studies show too little sleep can contribute to many physical and mental health issues, including poor ability to learn, depression, high blood pressure and disease.

For many parents, ensuring their children get the right amount of sleep can be stressful. Here are some facts on why it’s so important they get the shut-eye they need, and how you can help them get into good habits.

How does sleep affect learning?

For all of us, memory and learning are consolidated during sleep.  For adolescents, this mostly happens during REM sleep - which is a phase in the sleep cycle that happens after deep sleep.  During high-pressure times such as exams, students are often tempted to pull all-nighters to cram for the next day. Unfortunately, this is often counterproductive - because with fewer hours to reach the REM phase, the teen brain doesn’t get enough time to lay down what they’ve studied the night before.


While the old advice is that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep before an exam the real benefits occur when teens get a good night’s sleep after studying for the exam.

In her groundbreaking book The Teenage Brain, neuroscientist Dr Frances Jensen explains ‘Bedtime isn’t simply a way for the body to relax and recoup after a hard day working, studying or playing. It’s the glue that allows us not only to recollect our experiences but also to remember everything we’ve learned that day.”

Not only does sleep strengthen learning and memories - it also has the ability to prioritise memories by breaking them up and organising them according to their emotional importance.

Essentially the more you learn, the more you need to sleep which is why a good sleep is critical in achieving success at school.

How much sleep do we need?

There is no magic number for exactly how much sleep we need, but the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep (ACES) suggests the following as a guide:

Primary school: 10-12 hours per day

High school adolescents: 8-10 hours per day

Adults: 7-9 hours per day

During adolescence, melatonin (a sleep hormone) is released later in the evening compared to adults, which explains why your child may fight sleep in the evening. Because of the delayed release of this hormone, it also sticks around longer, making teens sluggish in the morning.

A healthy sleep routine with adequate time to wind-down at the end of the day is important to ensure you teen gets the sleep their brain needs to develop and consolidate everything they’ve learnt that day.

What happens if they don’t get enough?

According to the ACES, 35 - 40% of children and adolescents experience some form of sleep deprivation during their development.

A short-lived bout of lack of sleep is generally nothing to worry about: the bigger concern is sleep deprivation - a longer period of time where you are not getting the hours you need to function and learn.

Poor sleep will have all sorts of adverse physiological, emotional and cognitive effects on children and particular teenagers, including:

  • Susceptibility to serious illness

  • Rise in blood pressure

  • Eating too much, or eating the wrong foods

  • Mood swings

  • Aggressive, impatient behaviour

  • Low self-esteem

Without adequate sleep our focus and attention drifts making it harder to receive information. When we are sleep-deprived our overworked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly and we lose our ability to access previously learned information.


So, how can parents help?

If you think your child needs more sleep, try making gradual changes to their sleeping habits. Small increments have been shown to be effective in changing sleep patterns.

  • Be aware of the signs of fatigue in your children and speak to them if you’re worried they are sleep deprived.

  • Be clear about how much time your kids can spend on their computers and phones - a limit of no more than one to two hours a day is ideal.

  • The light from LED screens delays the release of melatonin and makes it difficult for the brain to wind down.  Enforce a no screen policy one hour before bedtime if your children are fighting sleep.

  • Take their phones out of their rooms when it comes to bedtime, or turn the setting to ‘Airplane Mode’ to disconnect it for the night.

  • Limit soft drinks, fried food, sweets and caffeine (even tea) before bed.

  • Regular exercise will help tire their bodies and get them ready for sleep.

And remember, your children are going through a period of their lives where their brains and bodies are going through a lot of change. Not only is your job to set these firm guidelines and support them along the way, it’s also to be patient and ride the wave with them. It may not be easy, but they will thank you for it (eventually!).

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