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  • Scott Murphey

Sleep: The most undervalued aspect of development that we can promote as teachers.

Updated: May 3, 2021

Teachers should be very aware of the importance of sleep and its effects not only on development and health, but the role it plays in learning.

Sleep is very VERY important for everyone, especially children and the developing brain.  It's so important it should be ranked close to the level of love, support and proper nutrition.   Lack of sleep is connected to adverse health and cognitive impairments.  On the other hand proper sleep helps us learn better and create stronger memories and connections in the brain.    This is how much sleep your children should routinely get every night.  

Sleep is something that I find is not taken serious enough.   The overwhelming clarity of the research done to this date all points to the importance of getting enough sleep.   Not having enough sleep can have detrimental effects in many different ways for both children and adults.   This information should be especially important to parents of school age children as the effects of sleep on the developing brain are even more profound.   Teachers can play crucial role in this area by getting this information out to parents, teaching it to their students in school. Not just telling kids how much sleep they should get but also explaining why it is so important and what role it plays for their development and learning.

The why. I will break it down into sections.

Sleep development:  

"Broadly speaking, it might be argued that the most fundamental requirements for healthy growth and development in young children include a) loving support and protection by parents/caretakers, b) adequate nutrition, and c) adequate sleep."

This encapsulates a great deal of important information.   For this post we focus on letter C, adequate sleep. Lack of sleep on developing kids bodies and brains has been shown to be correlated with many developmental problem in children as they grow and the effects can be tracked to later life as well.   In the article form Touchette et al.  they report that,  "specific cognitive deficits and high hyperactivity scores at age 6 were most strongly associated with a pattern of short sleep duration at age 2.5 years, despite the increase to normative sleep patterns from age 3.5 through 6 years.”   Now if you extrapolate from that that many of these kids are continuing to get inappropriate sleep further on into their development by the time the are in say 4th grade they may have serious deficits in learning and attention.   There are even correlations to more sever psychiatric disorders later in life.    

Lack of sleep is negatively correlated to more than just mental disorders.  Children who sleep an average of an hour less a night than other children have increased factors for Type 2 diabetes and unhealthy weight gain (obesity).    Not just a lack of sleep hours but quality of sleep too is correlated with these concerning issues.  Obesity itself has it own detrimental affects as well.

As Bernard Fuemmeler, PhD, MPH, professor and associate director for cancer prevention and control at Virginia Commonwealth University's Massey Cancer Center puts it, 

"Today, many children are not getting enough sleep," Fuemmeler said. "There are a number of distractions, such as screens in the bedroom, that contribute to interrupted, fragmented sleep. This, perpetuated over time, can be a risk factor for obesity. Because of the strong links between obesity and many types of cancer, childhood obesity prevention is cancer prevention, in my view.”

Sleep and learning:

Learning should be something most teachers take very seriously. It's what we do. Sleep had been strongly correlated to learning and memory consolidation and strengthening. When we sleep the brain uses that down time to help consolidate our memories and strengthen connections. It was once thought that brain activity lessened when we sleep but actually our brain is doing a lot of work, and the sleep cycle is important to this work. So if I wanted the best learning for my child I would need to make sure they are getting the right amount of sleep possible.

How do we do this? There are a couple important ideas to consider when thinking of how best to go about getting enough sleep, both for you and your child.

· Routines: Having sleep routines can be very important. Having a bed time and a wake up time is a good thing. Getting into this habit is one way to help develop a good sleep cycle.

· Screen time: Especially for kids, this is important. Kids should not be on devices about an hour before bed. This is a perfect time for reading a book, which is something that kids need to do as well. Unfortunately kindles and iPads, to the best of my knowledge, even with dark back screens and other functions are still not optimal. A paper book seems to still be the best… although I am sure someone is working on that problem.

· Exercise and activity: Generally a few hours before bed kids should be calming down letting their body and mind relax. Some say 2-3 hours. Based on my interactions with 8-10 year olds, with the right activities kids can calm down and relax within an hour or so. A good bedtime routine might be:

o Shower or wash their face

o Brush their teeth

o Play a not too active game (obviously not a video game).

o Listen to music.

o Read a book.

· Watch what they eat: I am not talking about sugar here. Sugar rushes are a very common and frustrating myth that just seems to permeate childhood and growing up. But that is a topic for another time. But we do want to pay attention to what kids eat before bed. Caffeine, even many hours before bed can have an impact on children. Some studies even say caffeine after noon can have effects that last until bedtime. A light, hopefully healthy snack is probably ok, but too much food can possibly lead to problems of sleep if the child has a stomach ache, indigestion, etc.

· Sleep Debt:

This is something I think most people are unaware of but can be extremely important once you know about it. Losing sleep is not just a matter of I only slept 5 hours last night so I will sleep 11 hours tomorrow. Once we lose sleep it takes a considerable amount of more time to make that sleep debt up. For example you will need a few days of good habitual sleep to make up for that one night of sleep loss. This is for adults, I always error on the side of effects on developing kids will be greater.

It seems like the greater the sleep debt as well, will require greater effort and to gain it back. Furthermore the greater the sleep debt the harder it is to notice the negative effects on us. According to one Harvard article, “once its fuzzy-headedness, irritability, and fatigue — has us in its sway, we can hardly recall what it's like to be fully rested. And as the sleep debt mounts, the health consequences increase, putting us at growing risk for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss.”

So how do we combat sleep debt? How do we “pay back the debt?” The Harvard study gave a nifty little chart:

Settle short-term debt. If you missed 10 hours of sleep over the course of a week, add three to four extra sleep hours on the weekend and an extra hour or two per night the following week until you have repaid the debt fully.

Address a long-term debt. If you've shorted yourself on sleep for decades, you won't be required to put in a Rip Van Winkle–like effort to repay the hours of missed slumber. Nonetheless, it could take a few weeks to recoup your losses. Plan a vacation with a light schedule and few obligations — not a whirlwind tour of the museums of Europe or a daughter's wedding. Then, turn off the alarm clock and just sleep every night until you awake naturally. At the beginning, you may be sleeping 12 hours or more a night; by the end, you'll be getting about the amount you regularly need to awake refreshed.

Avoid backsliding into a new debt cycle. Once you've determined how much sleep you really need, factor it into your daily schedule. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day — at the very least, on weekdays. If need be, use weekends to make up for lost sleep. And don't forget to follow the tried and true rules of sleep hygiene described above, in "Advice for avoiding sleep deprivation."

· Naps:

I have never been one for naps, but I know many people who swear by them. Before we get into it I think one important thing that should not be confused here is, naps are not a replacement for sleep loss.

One of the most commons problems the occur with naps is that they last too long. Naps should generally last about 10 - 20 minutes. Any less and your brain doesn’t quite hit the needed cycle for any true benefit. Any more and you start to feel sluggish and more tired than before your nap. One of the best napping plans I have heard of and tried (for adults though) is called a nappuccino. Author of books on work, management, and behavioral sciences wrote in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. 2018 about taking a nappuccino. See diagram picture below.


Touchette É, Petit D, Séguin JR, Boivin M, Tremblay RE, Montplaisir JY. Associations Between Sleep Duration Patterns and Behavioral/Cognitive Functioning at School Entry. Sleep. 2007;30(9):1213-1219.

American Association for Cancer Research. (2018, January 26). Quality of children's sleep may affect eating habits and weight: Poor sleep is associated with obesity, which can increase cancer risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 7, 2018 from

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