28 Jan 2019

Sleep: Why it is important to young people, their learning and well being

We are all familiar with those nights when sleep eludes us, when our brains are berating us to ‘go back to sleep!’, but we inevitably get up haggard, with the prospect of a zero energy day ahead. What is it about sleep that is essential, in fact some argue the key to our wellbeing?

There are many sleep experts easy to seek out these days, but sleep remains a conundrum for many scientists. Theories such as these begin to explain why sleep is as important as breathing:

  • Brain Plasticity Theory: Sleep is correlated to changes in the structure and organisation of the brain (plasticity)
  • Inactivity Theory – Sleep helps our survival by keeping us out of harm’s way
  • Energy Conservation Theory – Sleep reduces demand on our energy.  Our body temperature and caloric demand decrease during sleep so we conserve energy
  • Restorative Theory – Sleep helps us repair and rejuvenate our body (e.g. muscle growth, tissue repair, growth hormone release and protein synthesis only occur during sleep)

These theories are quite persuasive but given our time- starved days, are we getting sufficient sleep? Unsurprisingly, the answer is almost assuredly ‘no’. Matthew Walker, an award winning specialist in this area, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California Berkeley and the Sleep Scientist at Google, explains here the five compelling reasons why we all need to sleep more:

He’s persuasive, isn’t he?

At Sha Tin College, we see exhausted students every day. They are inclined to stay in bed a precious few extra minutes in the morning but doing this means they sacrifice breakfast. They arrive late for Tutor Time, slump through P.1, struggling to respond to questions and tasks. We are all aware of the research indicating that for some adolescent brains life would be less angst-filled if we did not start school until at least 10:00 am, but the current reality means this is impossible. We endeavour to inform our students about the ramifications of a lack of sleep but we are not convincing them and their lack of sleep can seriously impact their learning. Look at this list! Lack of sleep:

  • Results in impaired focus, attention,working memory and reduced cognitive abilities.
  • Affects judgment and moods.
  • Increases the risk of serious accidents and injury.
  • Increases the possibility of many health problems including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduces motivation, the ability to learn and retain information.
  • Negatively impacts concentration,mathematical capacity and logical reasoning.

As educators, we are conscious that sleep deprivation means overworked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly and students lose their ability to access previously learned information. Muscles are not rested and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized. Students lose their ability to make sound decisions because they can no longer accurately assess situations and plan accordingly i.e. choose the correct behavior; sound decision making and judgment becomes impaired.

So how much sleep do we really need? Our students need between 9 or 10 hours each night. Yes, each night. They need to establish patterns of sleep which are adhered to irrespective of other commitments like IAs, home learning deadlines, tests or even birthday celebrations. Sleep should be what we plan the rest of our lives around. It is that critical.

Teachers and parents are empathetic to the pressures and trials adolescents face, including school work demands, the ways puberty can alter sleep patterns, peer pressure to be connected to others late into the night, ill developed self-restraint and poor management of time.

Parents can help children understand why it is so vital. They can model healthy, consistent sleep practices in the family, show children that sleep is precious and that it cannot be ‘banked’, substituted or ignored. Although it is tough, parents should enforce bedtimes strictly and set reasonable times to turn off all electronics. This can be negotiated with children, of course, but it is important as light from everpresent electronic devices suppresses melatonin. Even a few nights of reduced sleep can produce a notable impact on a young person’s emotions, cognitive processing and memory.

If sleep is troubled, there are possible causes that can be addressed.  Some of these include: the nature of the bedroom environment, mental health and emotional concerns, like anxiety, eating late or insufficiently, physical problems such as pain, breathing, possible asthma, or medication, caffeine and alcohol, as well as not getting enough exercise.

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”

Homer, The Odyssey

We need to all make more decent sleep our goal.  Let’s start tonight.


Further Reading and Watching