Classes suffer when children are not properly rested, reports Adi Bloom
Lack of proper sleep can lead pupils to misbehave, underachieve, become hyperactive, or develop learning difficulties.
And as one third of children do not sleep properly, this creates obvious problems in class.
Now paediatricians from Imperial College in London have launched a series of workshops to show teachers how to spot sleeping problems among their pupils, and how they can help ensure that their pupils sleep long enough and well enough at night.
Sleep is an active, rather than a passive, process: the brain uses sleeping time to consolidate knowledge and memories. An experiment conducted on baby canaries found that they learnt their mother's song more quickly when they were allowed to sleep after being exposed to the tune.
To ensure that this process works effectively, it is recommended that children between the ages of 3 and 6 sleep between 11 and 13 hours every night. However, the average night's sleep for children at this age is 10.4 hours, and almost one-third sleep fewer than 10 hours.
Kati Hajibagheri, academic paediatric registrar at Imperial, has produced a review of the research into sleep. "If children are sleep-deprived on a regular basis, it interferes with the processing of knowledge acquired during the day. And that has an impact on development and learning," she said.
Even when children do sleep long enough at night, their slumbers are rarely deep or uninterrupted. Many take too long to fall asleep; others snore or wake up during the night. Thirty-four per cent of all children experience at least one of these problems.
As a result, many of them suffer from the effects of poor sleep. The most obvious of these is daytime tiredness. But other effects are more subtle.
Research shows that when they have not rested properly, children suffer from attention deficit. They become hyperactive, requiring constant stimulation in order to stay awake. Such children often resort to any measure in order to keep themselves stimulated and active, including indulging in acts of gratuitous aggression.
Lack of sleep can also affect pupils' emotions. They are more likely than their classmates to be anxious, depressed or irritable. They are also easily frustrated and can respond by acting up and by misbehaving.
The impact on children's ability to learn is direct. Apart from finding it difficult to pay attention, under-sleeping pupils struggle to make decisions. Their memory is affected and their ability to think creatively is undermined. Children who have slept for less than 10 hours run a significant risk of injuring themselves during the day.
Dr Hajibagheri says teachers have a vital role in combating such problems. She believes schools ought to run training sessions with parents, providing advice on the most effective bedtime routines.
They should also monitor children's caffeine and sugar intake during school hours: three-quarters of pupils consume caffeine during the day, which has an adverse effect on their sleep patterns.
Dr Hajibagheri also argues that teachers should learn to spot the various signs of sleep deprivation so that they can refer particularly problematic cases to nurses or health visitors.
"I know that teachers have lots of things they need to be looking out for," she said. "And this is yet another one to think about. But it's often forgotten, and it can have a big impact on learning.
"It affects how quickly children learn. It affects how much they learn. And it is such an easy thing to address."
ON THE ALERT
What symptoms to look for to see whether a pupil has a sleep problem:
- frequent yawning;
- daytime sleepiness;
- learning difficulties;
- poor decision-making ability, creativity and memory;
- crankiness, irritability and frustration.
Strategies teachers can adopt
- Monitor children's caffeine and sugar intake - three-quarters of schoolchildren consume caffeine.
- Explain to parents the importance of a consistent bedtime routine and a cool, quiet, dark bedroom.
- Discourage parents from allowing children to have a TV in their bedroom - the light they emit even when switched off, can prevent children from sleeping properly.
- Refer children to local nurses or health visitors.
The extent of sleep problems among children:
- 40 per cent of them experience some form of insomnia.
- 20 per cent snore.
- More than 10 per cent talk in their sleep several times per week.
- 14 per cent of pre-schoolers and 4 per cent of schoolchildren wet the bed several times a week.
- Other children experience nightmares, sleep terrors, and restless-leg syndrome.