Why Healthy Sleep Habits Lead to Better Academic Outcomes

Why Healthy Sleep Habits Lead to Better Academic Outcomes

19 April 2022 • Words by Kate Purnell 4 mins

It is 8:40 a.m. and I am taking registration for my morning Form Room group, the UK’s equivalent of Home Room. I call a student’s name—we will call him John—and he has yet to arrive at school. This is not unusual for John as he is often late, sometimes so late that he misses his first lesson or two entirely. What is John’s consistent excuse? “I overslept” or “I couldn’t get out of bed, I was too tired.” When I ask John, who is 15, how late he stayed up, it’s not rare for him to answer that it was well past midnight and sometimes even 4:00 a.m.! He stays up playing video games, checking social media, or scrolling the internet.

I have seen John go from being a relatively cheerful young man to explosively angry on days when he has stayed up especially late. Other teachers tell me how he has spent the lesson with his head down, uninterested and unable to concentrate, sometimes sleeping through the whole lesson. When I tried to coax a conversation in our class about the importance of sleep, I have seen immediately that many of the teens stay up way past midnight on a regular basis. John is not the only student missing out on getting enough sleep.

Sleep is something that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is not a luxury but an essential component of one’s overall good health.

“Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain.”

Professor Matthew Walker, who teaches neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley and is a founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science, which focuses on the impact of sleep on human health.

In his book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, he summarizes the scientific research on sleep thus far. He provides insight into the effects of sleep on cognitive and physical performance. Professor Walker attests that sleep is the most effective thing we can do to reset both our brain and body.

Why sleep leads to better academic outcomes:

In a 2005 study, he and a colleague compared a “sleep group” with a “sleep-deprived group” on their ability to learn new information and retain it, with the help of an MRI scanner. After a full night’s sleep, the sleep group was able to receive and store new information within their hippocampus (the part of the brain that helps us to process and retrieve memories). The sleep-deprived group had a 40% decrease in this ability. This counters the misconception that “pulling an all-nighter” before an exam will result in better retention of the material.

Professor Walker stresses that getting enough sleep has been proven time and again to be an effective component for improving memory. Before learning – in order to prepare the brain for making new memories. After learning – to cement the memories and prevent forgetfulness. And it’s not only the cognitive function of the brain that benefits from sleep. Walker argues that sleep also gives the brain the opportunity to recalibrate and fine-tune emotional circuits while fueling creativity. Ultimately, being well-rested from a good night of sleep will lead to the probability of better academic outcomes.

As illustrated by my story about John, lack of sleep can lead to mood changes such as aggression and irritability.

Some of my younger students have been teary and emotionally sensitive on days when they are tired. Sometimes to the point where they have been monitored for anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Studies have shown that irritability is associated with poor sleep, leading children and teens to have more difficulty regulating their emotions and to be more likely to become upset and display increased aggression.

How can we help our young people develop positive sleeping habits in order to support their learning and their emotional well-being?

The first step is to identify the common causes of sleep deprivation in children and adolescents, such as excessive use of electronic devices that emit blue light, which interferes with normal sleep. If the idea of getting your child from a complete lack of prioritizing sleep to the 9 to 12 hours recommended for children or 8 to 10 hours recommended for teens feels overwhelming, don’t worry.

Professor Walker suggests three steps to take to begin the process:

  1. Regular sleep time: Have a consistent bedtime each night and a consistent wake time each morning, even on the weekends. 
  2. Temperature: Your body needs to drop its core temperature by 2 to 3 degrees to initiate sleep and then stay asleep. Aim for a bedroom temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius. 
  3. Prioritize your sleep: Sleep is not an option or a luxury. It is a biological necessity to support your life system.

Tips to help with prioritizing sleep:

Commit to a “wind-down” routine for the evening. Log off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before going to bed. Maybe read a book, write in a journal, or meditate. A warm bath or shower can be helpful, as this actually helps to lower the body’s core temperature.

If you find that you have future plans running through your head or are reliving your day, try a “mind dump.” Take a few minutes to write down the things you need to do the next day or some feelings about your day. That way, it’s out of your head. You can return to it with a fresh and emotionally balanced mind after a good night’s sleep. Remember, the best way to help our children and teens build healthy sleep habits is to set a good example ourselves!

Kate Purnell

Kate Purnell is originally from Oakland, Ca. She currently lives in the UK teaching Secondary English and Drama. An educator, writer and all-around multi-hyphenate, you can find her trying to get her students to fall in love with the power of the human story, writing her own or attempting to not be distracted during her yoga class. You can find her on Twitter and IG @KatePurnell