Can't sleep, won't sleep

Nightmares, anxiety and too long spent playing on the Xbox are just some of the reasons why many children are struggling to stay awake at school. Now one borough has called in an expert to try to tackle the problem.

Claire Shaw

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A tiny, specially made bed is set up in the corner of the classroom. Children's storybooks are neatly laid on top of a pastel-coloured blanket featuring a picture of a mother and father watching their child sleep.

It is a tranquil scene, but one that the parents in the classroom can only dream of for their children. "My five-year-old son wakes up screaming every night," reveals one.

"I can't get my daughter to sleep in her own bed," says another.

The parents are at Kinson Primary School in Bournemouth to take part in a series of pioneering workshops run by sleep expert Dr Andrew Mayers, a senior lecturer in psychology at Bournemouth University. Mayers is something of a pioneer when it comes to sleep research and is responsible for ideas such as "night terrors" being behind the screams of young people in the middle of the night - a problem that affects up to 6 per cent of young children.

This is just one of the conditions under discussion as Mayers stresses the importance of all children receiving enough sleep to prevent adverse effects on their education and health. His workshop is part of a series of responses launched after schools in the Bournemouth area realised they had a common problem: an increasing number of tired children who were unable to learn properly and disrupted lessons for others.

The schools' experiences chime with the results of a survey published by the Sleep Council earlier this year, which found that nine in 10 primary school teachers are struggling to teach children who are too tired to concentrate. The results have prompted serious concerns about an issue that, according to academic experts and teaching staff, is too often ignored. So how serious is sleep deprivation among children and what is being done to tackle it?

Of the 251 teachers who took part in the Sleep Council's survey, 88 per cent said there were too many distractions in children's bedrooms - such as video games, televisions and computers - and 82 per cent said parents were not strict enough about enforcing bedtimes.

Sion Humphreys, policy adviser at the NAHT heads' union, says the findings shed light on an "oft-hidden yet significant matter". "A tired and irritable child will not thrive, particularly in the active and pacy modern classroom," he says. "We are particularly concerned about the still small but rising number of pupils who stay up late engaged in online gaming."

The workshop at Kinson Primary is one of a number organised in Bournemouth after school staff noticed that children were struggling to get through the day without falling asleep.

Teacher Jane Rose was inspired to host the first sleep workshop, at Winton Primary School, when she discovered during parents' evening that many children in her class were experiencing sleep problems and parents often did not know how to deal with it. "These children were not making the progress we wanted to see," says Rose. "What was stopping them from making progress? It was because they were tired, and parents were struggling with getting them to sleep."

May cause drowsiness

Other teachers reported that pupils were so tired they had resorted to letting them sleep in the corner of the classroom. Fran Blanchard, special educational needs coordinator at Kinson, talks of constant tiredness and yawning. "If the younger children fall asleep, we wrap them in a blanket and allow them to sleep," she says.

But by training parents and teachers to spot the consequences of poor sleep - such as disruptive behaviour and difficulty concentrating at school; crying, nightmares and teeth grinding at home - it is hoped that the sessions will help to alleviate the problem.

Information about the importance of sleep and the consequences of sleep deprivation should be available to all teachers, alongside advice on topics such as nutrition and exercise, says Mayers. He is particularly concerned about the rapid growth of technology in children's bedrooms. "Some parents will tell me their 10-year-old child gets texts at two in the morning, which they have to respond to otherwise they are seen as `not cool'," he says.

"I think it is an important time to raise the profile of sleep in schoolchildren. Since I was asked to run the first sleep workshop almost two years ago, other schools across Bournemouth are asking for them because they have also noticed an increase in the number of tired children at school."

A study in 2008, which tested more than 500 schoolchildren aged 6-12, found that those who watched television, played video games or used the internet before bedtime had poorer sleep outcomes than those who did not. The result of this overstimulation was that their bedtime and waking time shifted at least one hour.

Indeed, it is common to hear children talking about staying up late playing Xbox games or watching DVDs in their bedroom, says Rose, which is why it is necessary to "raise awareness in families of the importance of sleep and to make it a priority".

"Teachers work so hard to make lessons engaging, and if a child is struggling to keep their eyes open it will affect their ability to concentrate and learn," she adds.

Running on teen time

Among teenagers, there is another issue to consider: research shows that, from the onset of puberty, teenagers need an extra two hours of sleep in the morning. Biological changes cause a two-hour delay in teenagers' natural wake and sleep times. An early start at school, therefore, has a negative impact on sleep-deprived teenagers' ability to learn.

Dr Paul Kelley, former headteacher of Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, has been working with Professor Russell Foster of the University of Oxford for many years to see if changing the time of school lessons can improve the health and learning of teenagers.

Kelley claims that there is an "overwhelming case" for shifting the times of the school day - a change he believes should be implemented in all secondary schools so that their "starting times match teenagers' biology".

"It will reduce their sleep deprivation, their learning will improve and, crucially, it will help to protect their physical and mental health," he says.

In May 2010, Kelley decided to change the start time at Monkseaton High from 9am to 10am, after a scientific study conducted at the school the previous year showed that teenagers perform better in the afternoon. The findings match more detailed international studies conducted in Canada and the US.

"It's a hugely important story," says Kelley. "It is something we can all do. It doesn't cost any money, there is an absolute solid science case for it and it is an international issue."

Although this two-hour time shift is generally only an issue for secondary school pupils, some research suggests that younger children and older adults in particular hit a low point in tiredness at about 2pm. According to Professor Jim Horne of Loughborough University, this is commonly known as a "post-lunch dip" - a natural depression in our wakefulness.

Rest and play

Kathleen McGrath, a paediatric nurse specialising in insomnia who wrote the Sleep Council booklet The Goodnight Guide for Children, says pupils need a rest after lunch to be able to learn successfully in the afternoons.

"Education and socialising in early years is tiring. Children need to have rest, time to debrief and concentrate their thoughts in order to benefit from education," she says. "I don't think that you can expect children to get pumped up on food, go running around and come in and concentrate. So it is a combination between quiet time, little chunks of learning, getting fresh air and exercise and having a routine, because having a routine really helps children to settle better.

"If they sleep badly as children," McGrath adds, "one of the great dangers is not just their education. They will tend to be overweight, they will tend to have blood pressure problems and they may well develop diabetes in later life, heart problems, depression, mental health problems - it's a big health burden and it needs to be sorted.

"Most teachers I have spoken to are very disheartened by the fact that most of the time they are talking to children who are half asleep."

Following its survey, the Sleep Council is sending out 10,000 teaching packs aimed at pupils aged 8-11. Each lesson plan includes a sleep diary to help children monitor whether they are getting enough rest.

And Mayers is currently exploring the possibility of conducting studies that examine the mental health and well-being of children, including how poor sleep affects their emotional, cognitive, social and educational development. He hopes the outcomes will help to offer a clearer understanding of the implications of sleep deprivation in children.

"It is clearly important and I am certain there are more schools that would also like to find ways to improve the sleep of children attending class," Mayers says.

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Claire Shaw

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