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Ask Susan: Son’s School Work Is Suffering Due to Poor Sleep

Hello Susan,

My eight-year-old son has been a horrible sleeper since birth, and it seems to be getting worse. He is very cranky for most of his awake-hours, because he’s clearly overtired and not getting enough sleep. I’ve tried all the usual tricks but nothing seems to work. His schoolwork is beginning to suffer – he recently failed a spelling test.

Please help.


Dear Ava

To achieve optimum performance, people need good quality sleep, although ‘good quality’ is hard to define. There seems to be no magic number for sleep, with individual needs varying, and general sleep guidelines from the American National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute showing that sleep time change as we age:

  • Newborns: 16 to 18 hours a day.
  • Preschool-age children: 11 to 12 hours a day.
  • School-age children: At least 10 hours a day.
  • Teens: 9 to 10 hours a day.
  • Adults (including older people): 7 to 8 hours a day.

While one size does not fit all, a lack of sleep can cause health problems and dramatically affect a person’s quality of life.

Lack of sleep affects emotions

When asked how lack of sleep affects emotions, common responses are usually grumpy, foggy and short-tempered. While many jokes are made about how sleep deprivation turns even the nicest person into a Jekyll and Hyde, not getting enough shut-eye can lead to far more serious consequences than irritability, difficulty concentrating and impatience.

A study led by a Massachusetts General Hospital pediatrician found that children ages three to seven who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control and peer relationships in mid-childhood. Reported online in the journal Academic Pediatrics, the study found significant differences in the responses of parents and teachers to surveys regarding executive function – which includes attention, working memory, reasoning and problem solving – and behavioral problems in seven-year-old children depending on how much sleep they regularly received at younger ages.

“We found that children who get an insufficient amount of sleep in their preschool and early school-age years have a higher risk of poor neuro-behavioral function at around age seven,” said Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, chief of General Pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, who led the study. “The associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship.”

Less pleasure from positive things

Research by Candice Alfano, a clinical psychologist, and associate psychology professor at the University of Houston, and co-investigator Cara Palmer revealed that inadequate sleep impacts children’s emotional health by creating more negative emotions and altering positive emotional experiences. For example, after two nights of poor sleep, children derive less pleasure from positive things, are less reactive, and are less likely to recall details about these positive experiences later.

“Healthy sleep is critical for children’s psychological well-being,” Alfano said. “Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety and other types of emotional problems. Parents, therefore, need to think about sleep as an essential component of overall health in the same way they do nutrition, dental hygiene and physical activity. If your child has problems waking up in the morning or is sleepy during the day, then their night-time sleep is probably inadequate. This can result for several reasons, such as a bedtime that is too late, non-restful sleep during the night or an inconsistent sleep schedule.”

Less sleep, lower grades

Impaired sleep reduces performance on many mental tasks. In their studies of catastrophes, such as the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident, and the Challenger space shuttle explosion, Milter and colleagues concluded that poor sleep quality had impaired decision making and contributed to each catastrophe.

Research has also revealed an association between sleep deprivation and poorer grades. In a survey of more than 3,000 high-school students, psychologists Amy R. Wolfson, PhD, of the College of the Holy Cross, and Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, of Brown University Medical School, found that students who reported that they were getting Cs, Ds and Fs in school obtained about 25 minutes less sleep and went to bed about 40 minutes later than students who reported they were getting As and Bs.

Sufficient sleep reinforces learning

On the positive side, sufficient sleep reinforces learning. Children’s brains transform subconsciously learned material into active knowledge while they sleep – even more effectively than adult brains do, according to a study by Dr. Ines Wilhelm of the University of Tübingen’s Institute for Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology in Germany.

Studies of adults have shown that sleeping after learning supports the long-term storage of the material learned, said Dr. Wilhelm. During sleep, memory is turned into a form that makes future learning easier; implicit knowledge becomes explicit and therefore becomes more easily transferred to other areas.

Children sleep longer and deeper, and they must take in enormous amounts of information every day. In the study, the researchers examined the ability to form explicit knowledge via an implicitly-learned motor task. Children between eight and 11, and young adults, learned to guess the predetermined series of actions – without being aware of the existence of the series itself. Following a night of sleep or a day awake, the subjects’ memories were tested. The result: After a night’s sleep, both age groups could remember a larger number of elements from the row of numbers than those who had remained awake in the interim. And the children were much better at it than the adults.

Ava, with so much at stake, one simply has to seek medical advice if a child isn’t getting enough sleep – that is, after ensuring that technology has no impact.

Sleep deprivation and technology often go hand in hand

Sleep, or lack thereof, and technology often go hand in hand when it comes to school-aged kids. According to an American survey, nearly three out of four children (72%) between the ages of six and 17 have at least one electronic device in their bedrooms while sleeping. Children who leave those electronic devices on at night sleep less – up to one hour less on average per night.

According to Dr. Jill Creighton, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York, the key to a successful school year starts with Z’s. So how can you power down your kids at night and make bedtime easier? Dr. Creighton shared her tips.

First – develop a night-time routine,” recommended Dr. Creighton. Whether it’s a bath, reading a book or listening to soothing music, these actives will have a better impact on your child to help them relax before going to sleep.

Second – Power off! “The hour before bed should be a no-electronics zone,” said Dr. Creighton. Studies show that the light from back-lit electronics (like tablets, smartphones and video games) can disrupt our ability to fall – and stay – asleep. Designate a spot in your home for electronics to be plugged in, then have your kids start their bedtime routine by plugging in one hour before lights out. Ban hand-held devices from the bedroom. “The burst of light from a phone (even if it’s just to check the time) can break a sleep cycle,” said Dr. Creighton. “A regular alarm clock is best.”

If your child is slightly addicted to technology and is resistant to turning off their device, try lessening the screen time. “Reduce screen time by 30 minutes or more each week until you reach your goal,” Dr. Creighton continued. “A good rule of thumb is try to limit recreational screen time to 60 minutes every day. And for every 30 minutes of screen time, make sure your kids get 30 minutes of physical activity.”

Being distracted by phones, hand-held devices and TV shows during mealtime cannot only lead to overeating, but additional unneeded screen time. And be a good role model. Parents, set a good example when it comes to screen time.



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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3,000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 30 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007 Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.