An alarming statistic has been making the rounds in the news lately—approximately 70% of Australian teens are chronically sleep-deprived, largely thanks to the ubiquity of digital devices. If you’re a parent, you probably already know how hard it is to unglue the eyes of your youngster from their smartphone, but you may not be fully aware of how much it’s affecting their sleep, and by extension, educational outcomes.
The relationship between sleep and learning has been extensively studied, and studies have repeatedly shown that our ability to learn and store new information suffers after just one night of poor sleep—let alone chronic sleep deprivation. If your child isn’t performing well in school, sleep deprivation is one of the major things you should rule out, and given the above statistic, there’s a fair chance it’s playing its part.
Unfortunately, sleep problems in kids can be hard to spot. Adults tend to slow down and exhibit a typical groggy mood, whereas sleep-deprived children and teens, paradoxically, can actually become hyperactive.
Hyperactivity, importantly, does not equate to hyper-functionality. Just like adults, kids who don’t get enough sleep have trouble with complex tasks that require what psychologists call "executive control", like resisting the urge to check Instagram while studying challenging material. In other words, actions that require forethought, or effortful, organized striving towards a particular goal are much more difficult when you’re not well-rested. In addition, the ability to sustain focus and attention, especially in a less-than-riveting scenario like a trigonometry class, suffers greatly with poor sleep.
To compound all of this, even if your sleep-deprived kid manages to propel themselves through their studies with sheer force of will, anything they learn is far less likely to stick. That’s because sleep plays a crucial role in encoding memories.
What can you do? If your child is young enough for you to manage their bedtime for them, do everything you can to make sure they’re in bed around the same time every night. If they have access to digital devices, instruct them to put them away at least a few hours before bedtime. Routine is critical for kids to get enough rest, and as a bonus, you’ll be setting them up for a lifetime of healthy sleep habits.
If you’re the parent of an obstinate teen, your best bet may be to go the route of informing them about the risks of sleep deprivation to the best of your ability. You know what works best for your own child, but some parents find that appealing to their budding independence and decision-making abilities via information, rather than demands, works better than the old "I told you so" method.