Sleep And School Performance: Setting The Stage For A Good Year For Your Child

Once kids are school-age, we don’t talk as much about sleep methods as we do for infants and toddlers. What we focus on is setting the proper schedule for a child, and making sure that good – and repetitive – routines are in place to help a child get the sleep they need. And as kids (and parents) start the school year, it’s worth revisiting some of the key points  - especially since there is a large (and growing) research literature documenting how a lack of proper sleep can negatively affect school performance (at any developmental stage).

You need to determine if your child is getting enough sleep. You can click here to read a prior blog post that went into this in some detail, but here are some very rough averages to keep in mind:

Ages 3 – 5: 11-12 hours

Ages 6 – 8: 10-11 hours

Ages 9-11: 10-11 hours

Ages 12-14: 9.5 – 10 hours

Ages 15-17: 9 hours

Since these are averages, your child may get a little more or less than what is listed above. That’s not necessarily bad – all kids are different. But you need to look for signs that the amount of sleep they get is right for them – or put another way, wrong for them. Signs of sleep deprivation are most telling at any age. Kids should not have difficulties waking up at the designated time during the school year. You shouldn’t have to work hard to wake them – and if they use an alarm, they shouldn’t have a tough time waking up to it. They shouldn’t be overly groggy when they get up. During the school day, they shouldn’t be yawning a lot or finding it tough to stay awake in class (a number of studies are documenting this phenomenon in school classrooms). For young kids, they should be tired when it’s nap time (not way before). For older kids, they just shouldn’t be overly tired during the day. Younger kids may be tired at the end of the school day (especially in the afternoon if they go all day), but they shouldn’t be exhausted and look like they are going to crash (it’s a sign that they are not getting enough sleep at night) – they need to crash at bedtime. Older kids shouldn’t be falling asleep in the afternoon.

These signs of sleep deprivation are critically important – plenty of studies show that sleep deprivation is associated with less learning and lower academic performance at every age.

What do you do if your child shows signs of sleep deprivation? You need to revisit their sleep cycle and figure out how much sleep they are getting. Work backwards from the time they have to get up, and figure out a new target sleep time using the averages listed above (note: not just bedtime – you need to know when they are actually going to sleep). You can introduce gradual changes  - modify the sleep time by 15 minute intervals every few nights and try to build toward the goal. What you want to do is find that sweet spot where a child’s own rhythm will get them ready for sleep at the right time – and you will know when that happens when they fall asleep in 15 – 20 minutes or so once they are in bed. You may need to examine the sleep ritual. What is your kid doing the 30 – 45 minutes before it’s bedtime? This is typically not the time for electronics, stimulating games, or television. It’s supposed to be a quiet time that gets the body and mind ready for sleep – so, think relaxed conversation, reading, anything low-key. And it’s not a time for social media either (and this statement applies to younger and younger kids every year). Structuring this time, and monitoring to make sure the rules are followed, are important – especially if there is a TV or computer in your kid’s room. Sorry, there are no big tricks up the parenting sleeve – it takes some pretty firm parenting to get this done, and done on a nightly basis.

That leads to another point that applies to all kids these days, even if sleep isn’t an issue – the problem of irregular sleep patterns. Lots of kids are busy these days, especially as they get older. There are long after-school activities and homework. The schedule isn’t the same every day. Some nights the work load is heavier than others. But the goal is to try to keep the sleep consistent during the school week – literally night after night. Irregular sleep patterns have been shown to mess up kids’ metabolic systems and can, over time, lead to gradual signs of sleep deprivation. Here’s where parents and kids have hard choices to make concerning how they spend their time and do all the things they want to do. The reality is that sleep patterns rarely factor into that mix, and they need to be considered. Many research studies – including a recent one published in the journal Child Development – show that staying up late (think cramming for an exam) has a negative effect on performance the next day. Sleep is critical for memory formation, and the lack of alertness that comes with shortened sleep often leads to non-optimal performance. So try to be extremely rigid about the sleep time – and put that on top of the list when figuring out schedules for the school year.

The issue of busy schedules leads to another point – the utility of catch-up sleep on the weekend. In moderation, this can be a very good thing for kids. An hour or two extra sleep on the weekend days during the school year can recharge the batteries (and in fact have metabolic advantages according to some studies). More than that can mess up the sleep cycle for the next week. And the corollary is that kids who have activities that get them up early on the weekends may be missing out on some sleep they need (again, another choice for parents and kids alike). If that’s the case, it’s a stronger argument for making sure your child is getting enough sleep during the week, on a nightly basis.

These are some pretty solid guidelines from research. The reality is that making sure your child gets the proper sleep to support their physical and cognitive development takes a lot of work, and it’s acknowledged that parents are also over-scheduled and in need of their own sleep (which makes the effort at the end of the day, well, feel like effort). The upside is that once good sleep habits are formed, and a solid and successful sleep schedule is in place and executed faithfully, the whole process becomes rather automatic. Of course, even with the best intentions and effort, sometimes sleep issues become difficult to solve. If that’s the case, I strongly recommend talking to your child’s pediatrician about visiting a sleep clinic. They are very skilled on figuring out real solutions to real problems (though parents will still have to do the work at home). If you haven’t read it before, here’s a link to my description of what happens at a pediatric sleep clinic.

Child soundly sleeping via Shutterstock.com 

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  1. by Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D.

    On September 19, 2012 at 10:10 am

    This is an even bigger problem for tweens & teens, and one that in many cases can’t be resolved at home. Many schools now start at absurdly early hours (e.g., 7 am) that are now known to be incompatible with adolescent sleep needs. No matter what time a child goes to bed, he or she can’t possibly get close to enough sleep. But moving the school clock to later (more traditional) hours is a “hot potato” item in many communities, one that may take collective action on a national scale to change. For more information, see http://www.StartSchoolLater.net.