Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Students and 3 Actions You Can Take

Students are not getting enough sleep. Teachers are seeing the effects of sleep deprivation in students at school.

Classroom Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation in Students

  • Depression or apathy toward learning – student just doesn’t seem to care about anything
  • Memory problems – forgetting routines, where they put their supplies
  • Daydreaming – staring off into space, not engaging with teacher or peers
  • Inattentiveness – moving in their seat, needing to get up and walk
  • Yawning or sleeping – can’t keep their eyes open during lesson or breaks
  • Inability to focus – shuffling body, papers or trying to have side conversations
  • Diminished ability to regulate emotions – unable to maintain friendships, overreactions to guidance, unable to accept constructive critiques
  • Increased perception of pain – complaining of unobservable body ailments

As a teacher I have seen all these behaviors over the years.  Although I cannot say each incident listed above was due to sleep deprivation, students who have admitted to going to bed late often exhibit two or more of these symptoms on any given day. 

These symptoms interfere with a child’s ability to learn.  Memory is in important part of learning.  Being able to remember the steps involved in a skill, the facts of a situation or the routine to a school day makes a difference in how easily a student transitions, performs and progresses. 

Boy sleeping in class because of sleep deprivation
Too tired to learn

Sleep Deprivation Can Look Like ADHD

Many of these symptoms mimic a child with ADD.   I find that years can be lost in looking for a medication or creating 504 accommodations for a child without any neurodiversity that couldn’t be corrected with adequate sleep.  Just recently a parent chose to take her child off ADHD medication as 18 months later there had been no improvement in school behavior or performance.  Once we researched sleep and she followed the advice outlined below, her mood became brighter, she was engaged in the lessons and her self-confidence rose.  Now she is participating in Teir 2 tutoring during the school day and is making great gains. 

Children, like this girl who can't concentrate may have sleep deprivation keeping her from having academic success.

So, to share this information is a pleasure. It is important to look at sleep deprivation first.  Improving sleep patterns and quality has no negative side effects and might prevent years being lost looking for a disorder that just isn’t there.    

Why Sleep Deprivation Needs to be Addressed NOW

Students who experience on going lack of sleep with have long term effects of sleep deprivation.  Recent studies have shown actual changes in the brain when it is deprived of sleep.  Dr. Ze Wang reports impaired cognitive functions will include, decision making, conflict solving, memory, and overall learning disabilities.  These neurological differences persisted for more than two years after sleep routines were adjusted.  Yang FN, Xie W, Wang Z. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2022 Jul 29:S2352-4642(22)00188-2. doi: 10.1016/S2352-4642(22)00188-2. Online ahead of print. PMID: 35914537.

Sleep Deprivation in Students Effects Academic Success

Students with neuro deficits and behaviors listed above will fail to meet social, behavior and academic milestones along with peers.  Students who can’t remember what the assignments was or where assignments were, lose valuable time in both practicing skills and, or, enjoying enrichment opportunities.

Children who focus have time in school for enrichment activities unlike students with sleep deprivation.

Students with memory problems will struggle to write as they can’t remember how to spell.  They will copy notes at a slower pace, needing to look up and back more often.  These students will not have basic math facts or number sense concepts memorized making longer math processes and activities drag on past even the expected attention span for their age. 

A student who is unable to focus on new learning or directions given by a teacher find themselves having to scramble to fake their way through the day as a means to avoid self-shaming or actual consequences for not being independent during class.

The Emotional Fall Out of Sleep Deprivation in Students

Being deprived of sleep can cause physiological anxiety.  But, not being prepared or having lost focus during instructions can add another layer of anxiety in a student that otherwise wants to perform and meet expectations.  If they are physically challenged and can’t focus, remember or understand, shame and low self-confidence can take over.  When that happens students might exhibit behaviors that require disciplinary action or somatic symptoms leading to excessive absenteeism. 

Boy is in the hallway going for a walk to stay awake.  He has sleep deprivation.

Physical Diseases Related to Sleep Deprivation

I am not a doctor.  This information is being reported not necessarily a result of childhood sleep deprivation but I thought they were worth mentioning.  In adults sleep deprivation has been related to heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression.

In students, the depression that can result from sleep deprivation has been linked as a risk factor for developing a drug dependency. 

Three Things You Can Do For Students Who Are Sleep Deprived

As a teacher or administrator

  1. Contact the parents to get their support in creating a new sleep routine for the student.
  2. Provide the student with encouragement that you know they could feel better if they changed their sleep habits
  3. Provide the student with support and tools to cope with the emotions, disorganization, behaviors, and frustrations until the sleep routine can be modified.

How to share this information with parents.  It can be an uncomfortable conversation.  This is why I created a flyer for our parents.  You can provide this in meetings such as your IEP, 504, SSTs or Parent Conferences.  You can mail it home to everyone.  Or maybe, just have a set available in the front office.  By providing parents with information they can review at home you are inviting them to make a change maybe they don’t know needs to happen.  A flyer can be created by anyone.  However, if you are short on time there is one already done for you.  It is based on the same research and is designed to not be too overwhelming for parents. 

In parent meetings is is important to discuss the effects of sleep deprivation in students.

As a parent or caregiver

  1. Set a bedtime that is appropriate for the age and wake time of the student.
  2. Work with the student to create a bedtime routine.
  3. Make superhuman efforts to follow the routine 7 days a week 365 days a year.

How To Design a Healthy Sleep Routine

Daily Habits for Quality Sleep

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Drink water
  • Avoid heavy meals before bed
  • Don’t nap unless age appropriate
  • Do not watch TV or play video games in bed
  • Keep the sleep routine 7/365

Night routines for Quality Sleep

  • Turn off bright lights
  • Stop video games or TV before beginning the night routine
  • Save tough conversations or big decisions until morning
  • Create hygiene related wind-down routine
  • Change into weather-appropriate sleepwear
  • Relax the mind with reading, or meditation
  • Relax the body with stretches, a warm drink or a shower

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