Adolescents need sleep to learn

So can we teach them how to sleep well?
Twinsfisch, Unsplash
Twinsfisch, Unsplash

Adolescents may not be getting enough sleep. Educating them about the importance of sleep may help, but we must be cautious not to make them anxious about their sleeping behaviours.

It is increasingly recognised that sleep is important for learning. Sleep ensures that students are well-rested and ready to learn, and it also consolidates learning from the day. Sleep presents a particular challenge for adolescents, who notoriously stay up late and struggle to get up early. While many people assume adolescents are making the poor decision to stay up late at night or being lazy in the morning, the body clock (or circadian rhythm) changes in adolescence. This means that adolescents don’t feel tired when their parents want them to go bed, and they don’t feel ready to wake when they need to be getting ready for school.

This means that many students aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep, with a knock-on effect on their learning. Some schools have tried to get around this by altering the time of the school day, so that it starts and ends later. In the US, one study found that this increased sleep time (exemplifying that adolescents aren’t simply choosing to not get enough sleep). Grades and attendance went up, too.

In the UK, a project called Teen sleep similarly aimed to test the effect of later school start times. Unfortunately, schools were unable to accommodate the changes necessary for the project. Instead, pupils were educated about the importance of sleep for learning. The preliminary study showed that the education did not lead to improved sleep, but it did lead to some positive outcomes like reduced daytime napping and increased knowledge of sleep hygiene.

This pilot study emphasises that evidence-based education isn’t as simple as running a study to find out what works and then widely implementing it. While the early evidence suggests that later school times will lead to improved learning, it simply isn’t possible to move all school times to help learners perform better. A change of this magnitude would require a change to teachers’ working patterns, with additional impacts on parents’ routines and even school buses.

This is one example where improving attainment isn’t the key consideration in translating research to the classroom; schools need to consider the scientific evidence available, and decide what is best for them based on their own values and priorities. This is true of any recommendation arising from scientific research.

“Schools need to consider the scientific evidence available, and decide what is best for them based on their own values and priorities.”

While the sleep education programme had minimal effects, it may be that over a longer period of time students would be persuaded that they need to engage in healthier sleep-related behaviours. Other sleep education programmes have shown more promise, with improved grades which were associated with more sleep time. Increased teacher understanding of the role of sleep might also be beneficial – teachers may be able to tailor material based on the time of a class and how sleepy the adolescents are likely to be.

Although educating about the role of sleep in learning seems like a good step for now, we must be wary not to overemphasise the importance of sleep. Sleep is of course just one of the factors affecting readiness to learn. If adolescents become overly preoccupied with sleep when they are struggling to get enough, they may become unhelpfully anxious – much like some adults whose sleep tracking apps cause anxiety. Nonetheless, given the sleep deprivation that many students experience during the week, this remains an important area of focus for those keen to improve adolescents’ learning.

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