As a primary school teacher, morning conversations with parents often revolve around how well each child slept the night before. Being told, “He’s been up since 2am” or ,“She is really tired today – good luck!” is not uncommon.
A lot has been written about the importance of children’s sleep for academic performance – it is likely that 40 per cent of children aged 4 to 16 across England and Wales have sleep issues, according to research. This made me question whether many of the issues in the primary classroom – inattention, lack of motivation and disruptive behaviour – were a consequence of sleep deprivation in my pupils.
As teachers, we know that education depends on cognitive processes in the brain, and yet we receive very little training on how factors like sleep may affect cognition. Cognitive processes help people to perceive the world, understand and remember experiences, communicate and control behaviour. Research shows that individuals who are sleep-deprived usually experience a decline in cognitive performance. This means sleep is essential for cognitive performance and learning in our classrooms.
Sleep deprivation does not need to take place over a long time period for the effects to be felt. Research in 2010 found that that short-term sleep deprivation (over less than 48 hours) was harmful for most cognitive domains, including attention, executive function, short-term memory, working memory and processing speed.
Sleep deprivation: Parents and teachers must work together
Attention and working memory are the areas reported to be most strongly affected by sleep deprivation. These are the cognitive domains that teachers place many demands upon and are essential for learning. Working memory involves the ability to hold and manipulate information. So sleep deprivation could result in children having difficulty remembering the order of information or maintaining focus on relevant tasks.
What questions does the research raise for teachers?
As teachers, we demand a lot from children’s cognitive resources, especially their attention and working memory. Given the research, teachers might ask:
- Could the child who struggles to follow instructions and pay attention actually be tired?
- Would a good night’s sleep lead to a change in their performance?
- Is there anything we can do as a school to improve sleep education in children and parents?
What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom?
It is reasonable to suggest that sleep deprivation has a significant impact on cognitive function. Therefore, it’s important for us, as educators, to respond to the literature and consider sleep as an important factor which may contribute to educational outcomes in the children we teach.
More work is needed to educate teachers about the importance of sleep: they need to be able to teach children about healthy sleep routines and help to identify children who may benefit from further intervention from sleep practitioners. This way, those children can achieve their full academic potential.
Parents and teachers must work together to have an open dialogue about sleep. This would ensure that teachers adapt their practice as necessary and also that parents are made aware of any issues that might have an impact on their child’s sleep.
Teachers could allow extra time for processing delays, visual prompts to allow for memory lapses, and also modify their environment; sitting these children near a window for fresh air and light, and providing enough water to drink, which will help to stimulate them. This partnership between parents and teachers is important for ensuring that the children’s progress and learning is maximised.
Ryan Deakin is a primary school teacher in the UK.