HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

The secret weapon for school success

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By GreatSchools Staff

Lack of sleep is linked to a multitude of problems

Several studies presented at Sleep 2007, the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, highlighted some of the adverse effects caused by lack of sleep — aggressive behavior and bullying, poor grades, poor attention span, disruptions in cognitive and linguistic function including the skills necessary for reading and language development. A few scientists theorize that sleep problems at a young age can cause permanent changes in a child's brain structure.

Lack of sleep may be the cause of behavior problems

Sometimes lack of sleep will be the reason behind temper tantrums, morning meltdowns and irritable behavior. Your child may not be able to tell you that's the problem and you may not see it because a tired child may become a wired child-full of energy. "It's as though their body is out of control," says Kurcinka. "And it is."

Kurcinka says parents need to set limits on extracurricular activities and computer time, and become advocates at their school for reducing the amount of homework, and encouraging schools to adopt later start times.

More and more children lack sleep — a disturbing trend

Kurcinka argues that lack of sleep among children is more common now than ever before and attributes this trend to three factors: science, safety, and achievement.

"Science — The research on early brain development and the importance of brain stimulation has meant kids are overstimulated starting at a young age. They begin by watching 'Baby Einstein' videos and continue from there. Safety-parents are afraid to let kids go out and play so they provide more structured activities which tend to be organized around adult hours and schedules. Achievement-so much is competitive and overly achievement oriented for kids, from soccer to gymnastics to academics."

To counter these factors, Kurcinka says, parents should "create an environment that values sleep and is conducive to it. The bottom line is that parents of children who are successful have a secret weapon — they protect their kids' sleep. Kids who get more sleep have higher grade-point averages. In a study reported in the journal, Child Development, in 2003 entitled 'The Effects of Sleep Restriction and Extension on School-Age Children: What a Difference an Hour Makes,' Tel Aviv University researcher Avi Sadeh found that even 41 minutes less sleep each night can affect memory and attention."

Managing sleep patterns begins in the morning

Kurcinka says managing sleep problems and controlling stress levels begins in the morning by making time for a peaceful family breakfast. She sees it as a way to take time to sit and talk, to "check in" and connect with your child. By starting the day without rushing, you set a calm tone for the rest of the day.

Avoiding bedtime battles

To avoid bedtime battles at night, Kurcinka advocates establishing a calming, predictable bedtime routine attuned to your child's needs that will help her wind down. In her book, Sleepless in America, she compares the process of getting your child to bed to landing a jumbo jet:

"Landing a jumbo jet is not a simple process. Miles from their destination, the pilots begin to prepare. They check the weather, determine which runway to utilize, the level of instrumentation to use on approach as well as the optimal speed. Once those decisions are made, they start to configure the aircraft appropriately…What the crew is trained to know is that conscientious preparation and a gradual descent lead to a soft landing and satisfied customers. When it comes to bedtime, most children are like those jumbo jets. Their days are often spent 'flying' from one activity to another, and they need to gradually 'glide' from the 'high' of their day to a 'soft landing' in bed."

Spending 20 minutes with your child before bedtime in a soothing activity, such as reading, quietly catching up on the day's activities, or telling stories, can help provide the calm that will help your child transition to going to sleep. Adjusting the routine, depending on your child's mood and needs, (just as the pilot adjusts the plane's landing pattern depending on the weather) will help, too. Some days kids just need a little more connection and attention.

Comments from readers

"my daughter (six year old) studying Grade 1- she wake up at 5.30 am and goes to school 6.40 and will come back around 2.00 pm, after come back from the school, she is having lunch and wanted to sleep 2 hours, (in studying, she is good and doing her homework properly) is it good to sleep two hours after lunch, please adivce us, "
"helpful "
"this really works "
" Actually i did,t have any problem yet. Because i see that i have a different problem. I didn't give priority to sleep and i try to sleep less but whenever i try it , the next day i became lazy and the next day i sleep (the time of regular sleep + the time o sleep which i had left the last day ). So although i am vary irregular in sleep, but totally i had slept up to the perfect time. "
"i disagree "
"I feel this article is very helpful. I read some of the other comments and feel that I would like to voice my opinion on the comment about working parents not being able to get kids to bed on time. I feel that we as parents need to PUT OUR KIDS FIRST and if my job is interfearing with me being able to take care of my kids to the best of my ability, then I would need to change jobs OR quit working. I was a stay-at-home mom until my children began school. Now I have a part-time job that the hours work perfect with me being able to take my kids to school and I pick them up as soon as school is over. We having homework time when we get home and then I fix supper for the family before we have to run off to practice for soccer, baseball, etc. I hear people say 'I can't afford to stay home'.... that is YOUR choice. We made sacrifices so that I would be able to stay home with our children (and now work part-time). If I would work full-time, we could buy a new house and have ! more expensive toys. However, we live in a 40-year old home and I feel our children have some really nice toys. Their friends enjoying coming to our house and they all always have plenty to do. Our children have a good life and I thank God for that!!"
"I appreciated the article. Thanks!"
"Although I'd absolutely love to have my three kids sleeping by 8:30 p.m., it's extremely difficult. My 9 year old son is ADHD, and he averages 4 hours to complete his homework. I'm physically and mentally exhausted when he's done. My 7 year old daughter could finish in 30 minutes. But go figure, he's an honor roll student. I can't handle it, though. In September, it'll come down to either sleeping early or completing homework. He's not so tired during the school day, but I wonder if the lack of sleep is contributing to the ADHD. I'd love to get him off medication."
"I'm in the large group of parents who are not getting their kids to sleep enough. I have trouble getting myself to bed early enough and just as much trouble getting my 8-year-old to bed. I'm always trying to get one more thing done before I take the kids up and time gets away from me! I'm confused as to why people think starting school later would make a difference (unless the overall school day was SHORTENED). It would just shift the problem forward. Go to school later, get home later, do after-school activities, homework, dinner, and bedtime later, and the amount of sleep is unchanged!"
"Its hard to have the 20 minute calm and relaxing time, if you are constantly asking your kids to do their chores. Which is the case for me."
"I thought this article was very informative, I hope you don't mind me sharing with you! "
"It's nice to know that I have a lot of the same time issues that other parents do. It is a struggle to strike a balance between sleep, meals, school, and homework. On a perfect day, my 6 year old will get 10 hours of sleep. But if we run late with dinner or homework takes longer, he that gets shortened. With school at 7:35am, we have to leave the house by 7:15am, so waking up later than 6:00am is not possible. We do nearly all of the other suggestions about family breakfast, routines at bedtime, etc., but there is only so much you can do. I do want to point out to the person who said that the 7:00am start time was more appropriate for high school that, in fact, studies show that high schoolers have a harder time with early mornings that younger kids. I forget why this is, but it is a natural rhythm for that age group. So there is a good reason why a teenager has a hard time getting going in the morning. Some have suggested that high schools in particular should start later. It sounds as though most schools should, although I know that they often start earlier so that the buses can get through morning traffic more quickly by not being in rush hour."
"Here, Here! I couldn't agree more. And, I also have heard all those lines from parents about their child 'not needing much sleep' or 'they'll get caught up on the weekend' or the best one - 'it's not going to kill them'! Wish that we could all start to begin again to treat children like precious little ones, instead of jerking them from one activity to another for the sake of fun and so called enrichment. BALANCE anyone??"
"I believe that if schools would start later children would do better. My child takes medication for ADHD and the side effects of the medication can disrupt their sleep. I don't want a child that goes to bed with a pill and wakes up with a pill but that is what most professionals want the child to be. There are plenty of jobs that are night jobs and people are not accustomed to staying up all night but some of us are night people. I believe schools should accomodate children with sleep disorders."
"How are children supposed to get plenty of sleep when everything is so hectic, overwhelming with school work, and trying to balance everything? It's hard enough for adults. Way too much is expected of children now, and it's NOT right."
"my childs teacher said she is often aliking when it is learning time how can I fix this problem"
"i need help with myself because i'm not get enough sleep"
"THanks for a very interesting paper. I have a 14-year old son. He normally goes to bed no later than 10PM and wakes up every morning at 6:30AM. He frequently complains about lack of sleep. How much sleep does a 14-year old boy need daily? Thanks, Tam "
"This sounds fine and dandy in a 'perfect' world. But, in our society with the 'hustle' all of us experience, where working parent(s) pick up their children at an after school program by 6PM, get home by 6:30PM, eat by 7:30PM, bath, reading time, etc, this makes it difficult to get our children to bed on time. I know parents that commute at least 1 hour to get home, and the express the concerns of getting their children to bed on time. A lot of children are spending over 2 hours to do homework, especially as the grade level increases. In order for this to work our society needs to recognize and possibly change schedules to accommodate realistic expectations placed on people. >From an elementary school worker."
"Thank you for this article. I'm the one trying to get my 2 boys ages 6 and 14mos to bed by 8 and 8:30. Somehow it doesn't always work due to my husband's play time with them or too much homework or sports. This will help me to say no to other activities so they don't develop diabetes later."
"I am a child myself I got this article in a email and now that I have read this i will make sure I go to bed early because I dont want to have diabetes or any thing else that will make me sick or hurt me. Now I will encourage my friends and family to also go to bed early cause I don't want them to have or go through having diabetes. Thanks to all the people who decided to put things on here like this that is very important!!! Now when I go to bed i will go to bed at a decent time. :) :) :)"
"I teach in Japan at a private public school, but contrary to your article, I do not know of any schools in my prefecture (other than pre-schools and kindergartens-which in Japan are separate from elementary schools) that have the 'power naps' at lunch time. The students do have about 20 minutes after eating their lunches to play outside or do whatever they like (reading, etc.). While such a thing would be nice to have, the schedule of a child in Japan seems busier than a child in America. Rather than nap time at school, the burden should be in the home and it should be the parents who see that they regulate their child's life style to provide for a healthy balance between study/play, etc. and getting adequate sleep. In Japan, many parents believe that the schools and teachers should be responsible for monitering their child's life style and often demand that the teachers actually do their parenting for them."
"Getting our 7 year old son to sleep is not a problem, it the sneeking out of bed before the sun comes up thats the problem... How do we keep him asleep longer??"
"My daughter's school begins at 7:30am. She has to get up too early and has trouble winding down at night. High School should begin at 9:00am and end at 4:00pm. Our teens would be more successful with a later school day, besides, they would have less time to get into things on the street since most have an early curfew if they get out in the neighborhood at all. I think its absurd what has happened to many school systems. Its also ironic that much of those so called improvements are now being reversed like eliminating gym class."
"I think this could help me. I never new lack of sleep have disease like things. I'm very glad that I read this."
"I can not agree more with your article. I am very concerned about my 8th grader starting high school next year. She must be up by 6:30 to catch the 7:15 bus and she is exhausted all the time. I read to my kids in a dim, quiet, room from 8:30 - 9:00 p.m. and then Lights Out. But Gillian cannot get to sleep until usually after 10:00. She has no caffeine, no TV, no stimulation before bed. She gets plenty of exercise and eats pretty healthy. She, like many other teens, has a body that wants to be on a later schedule. Next fall, she will have to get up an hour earlier and I am very concerned for her health. How can I get the schools here to start later for high school students? All scientific research shows that this is a necessity!"
"thank you for e-mailing this to me. by reading this notice, i have finally opened my eyes! now i know what can i do so that i can catch up on my sleep, and i will try to encourage our school to having those power naps, but i doubt that they will actually let us have them. the reason as to why i say this is because our school is turning bad. but again i would like to thank you for giving me this e-mail and i promise that i will try to catch up on my sleep so i can do better in school and start thinking about my future."
"I do struggle a lot with my two sons, when its time to go to sleep. Most of the time I send them to sleep at 9:00pm, but their playing, or talking, laughing its a game of everyday. Well they end up sleeping at 10:00pm past bedtime. What can I do , I do work and get home everyday at 8:00pm my mother helps me by showering them and getting them ready for bed. Thank You ..."
"I leave in PA. I have 2 daughters 4 and 8. My 8 year old daughter is in third grade, and a straight A student. She has a passion for reading and learning. Sometimes I feel bad telling her that she can not read pass her bed time which is between 7:30 and 8 pm. Her and her sister gets up every morning at 6:30 am. It is hard sometimes for her to play outside when she gets home from school because by the time she is done with homework it is almost dark out and we move on to other things. But I find that she is not as tired as some children with less sleep; and that she is always focuss unless she is reading a book then she does not hear anyone or anything around her. When it comes to my 4 years old. She does not sleep as well as her sister she will ask to leave her light on and come back to turn if off which my self and my husban usually do because she does not go to school yet. But she gets about 9 to 10 hours of sleep as well. They know the rountine we start with the clean! ing up brushing teeth and a story. A little fuss from the 4 year ol but not much. In our house a story always does it. But we read them their stories in their bed. "
"Nice to read reinforcement of why our 6th and 8th grader get 11-12 hours of sleep per night! Glad to know our 'abnormal' sleep routines are considered healthy!!!!"
"hi! My children go to sleep beautifully! they ask to go to bed when they are tired. Usually sometime around 7pm. I know for most this would be a dream come true. However, my youngest seems to have a set natural wake up time from 3:15 until 4:15 am. Every day between those times he wakes up. I have tried ignoring him, cuddling him, putting the television on, feeding him, all to no avail. I know as a child, I also woke up around 4am. I still do most days. I have never needed an alarm clock to get up in the morning. We don't even have one in the house. My question is, how do I help him sleep longer in the mornings? Is it genetic?"
"I applaud this article. My husband and I have always made sure our girls (ages 11, 9, 6, and 2) get plenty of rest, including a power nap when they get home from school. Our girls are performing at an 'A' average in a school for the gifted and we strongly believe getting enough rest is a factor in their success!"
"Well this vary good my daughter has had some problems in school. And I found out she had not had enough sleep. Know she is refreshed and happy to go to school."
"Great Advice! Gabriele Washington, Kindergarten teacher at Sutterville Elementary School, Sacramento (SCUSD)"
"Your article on lack of sleep in kids is an issue close to my heart. My 12 year old in 7th grade goes to a magnet school where the first class starts at 7am, a time more suitable for high schoolers. She wakes up at 5.15 am and by the time she is done with after school academic activities and homework, it is invariably atleast 9.30pm by the time she goes to bed. My question is, do the school and district authorities all over the country not see the harm we do to our kids? Why can't we start the school day later and end it later? We could even make up the time difference by cutting back a couple of weeks of summer break. Whatever the solution, this needs to be an agreement on a state or national level. Kids are almost required to do their activities to stay competitive, and homework as we know is a must, so unfortunately it seems that to school districts nationwide what can be most compromised is our children's health. Apparently they have not heard the saying ' All work and ! no play (or sleep) makes Jack a dull boy.'"