The Connection Between Sleep and Learning
Understand how sleep impacts your child’s development and how to help your student get the best night’s sleep each night.
May 13th, 2021 •
You’ve probably heard the old adage before: If you’re having trouble learning something, just sleep on it.
As it turns out, the saying actually has credibility to it. Sleep and learning have a strong connection.
When you’re in the process of trying to learn and retain new information, your sleep is critical. For students who are constantly receiving new information in their studies and taking tests based on retention of this material, quality sleep plays an especially important role.
No matter the age, between primary school and a collegiate education, it’s important that your student receives the appropriate amount of sleep each night in order to be a successful learner.
In this guide, you’ll learn how your student’s sleep has a direct affect on their learning and development and how you can make sure they maintain healthy sleep patterns for their success.
The processes of learning new information can be categorized into three stages: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Each stage has an important role in the process of learning.
This stage refers to the period of introducing new information to the brain. For students, this stage encompasses classroom time and studying.
During this stage, a memory becomes stable. Getting adequate sleep and spending time in deep sleep is important for this stage. Once memories undergo the process of consolidation, they become a part of your long-term memories.
Memory recall refers to the act of remembering previously learned information. For students, recall is a key method for achieving well on tests.
Studies have shown that there is a strong connection between sleep, learning, and memory. When you are on a consistent schedule of seven-to-nine hours of sleep each night, there are several benefits, including:
- Better problem-solving and critical-thinking skills
- Improved creativity
- Enhanced attention
- Better ease of learning
- Improved memory recall
Being well-rested gives students better mental clarity, which is critical for learning new information. Students who dismiss their sleep unknowingly damage their ability to learn and remember information. This can inhibit learning new information during class time and be even more detrimental during tests when trying to recall information.
The reasons sleep deprivation harms a student’s ability to learn are complex. One influencing factor is the difficulty of focusing while being affected by sleep deprivation; the other is due to the important memory consolidation processes that occur during the sleeping hours.
We’ve all experienced the difficulty of focusing after a night of lost sleep. It’s a no-brainer that it’s more challenging to stay focused and attentive when all you can think about is your exhaustion, but there are deeper neurological processes at work that hinder your focus.
Without sleep, your neurons become overworked and lose functionality. This makes it more difficult for students to coordinate incoming information and access previously learned information as well.
Exhaustion will also affect a student’s ability to think critically or make sound judgements. This is not only a hazard for daily activities, but it also disruptive of the processes students need to practice while taking tests, working on projects, or crafting essays.
Sleep deprivation also impacts your mood, making students less receptive to concentrating and learning new information. This decreases the chances of students receiving and retaining any information given during this time.
Sleep is also important for memory consolidation, which is essential for retaining new information.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is a deep stage of sleep during which dreaming frequently occurs. This stage of sleep is one of the essential stages for the consolidation of memory. Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), a deep, restorative stage of sleep, also has a significant role in the memory processes.
Both of these stages are a key time for the brain to process learned material. When students lose sleep, or experience frequent disturbances during the night that pull them out of the deep stages of sleep, they are less likely to retain information.
This is true as well for procedural memory processing, which relates to remembering how to do something. Without deep sleep, students will suffer both in their ability to recall factual information and in performance and motor coordination for learned skills.
Amounts of Sleep and Sleep Schedules
When sleep patterns and sleep amounts fall outside optimal norms, this is when you run the risk of lowered functioning. This affects us at all ages, whether or not we are in school, and directly affects learning, recall, and how well one does academically.
Sleep amounts vary depending on your age. Even an hour less than the minimum can have disastrous consequences.
For academic performance, studies show that less than the minimum, even on an irregular basis, can cause a decrease in GPA, as well as daytime sleepiness that inhibits learning.
Below is a chart using the National Sleep Foundations’ recommended amounts of sleep for various age groups.
|Age||Hours of Sleep|
|0 to 3 months||14 to 17 hours|
|4 to 11 months||12 to 15 hours|
|1 to 2 years||11 to 14 hours|
|3 to 5 years||10 to 13 hours|
|6 to 13 years||9 to 11 hours|
|14 to 17 years||8 to 10 hours|
|18 to 25 years||7 to 9 hours|
|26 to 64 years||7 to 9 hours|
|65 and over||7 to 8 hours|
The ideal sleep schedule is to go to bed with the dark and get up with the light, and to have a consistent schedule that your body can count on. This means going to sleep at the same time nightly and waking at the same time daily. This applies for infants through seniors.
Understanding the important connections between quality sleep and learning makes it obvious that students need to take their sleep more seriously. The role of sleep in the learning process is too essential to ignore.
As a parent of a student, you will want to do everything you can to set them up for success. The ways in which you do this will change as your child ages. Here’s how you can help your child improve their sleep on each step along the way.
Elementary School Students
Young children operate best on a structured routine, and it’s up to you as a parent to set the expectations for their routines. When it comes to sleeping, you will want to enforce a set bedtime routine of winding down, brushing teeth, reading a book, or other important components that fit your child’s needs.
Once you set this routine, keep it set. Your child and their body will naturally adapt to this routine and any disruptions will be damaging. Keep up a consistent bedtime and wake time to help your young child keep up healthy sleeping patterns.
Middle School Students
During the middle school years, children experience many changes in their daily habits and lifestyle. The academic demands also become more serious in middle school, meaning it’s especially important your student has their sleep under control.
One large sleep disruptor affecting children in this age group is the use of technology. When children or pre-teens start using cell phones, they are tempted to stay up late at night playing games, using social media, and chatting with friends. As a parent, it’s your duty to put healthy limits on their technology use so it doesn’t disrupt their sleep.
Another factor is an increasingly busy schedule. Middle schoolers begin participating in more extra-curricular activities, clubs, and sports, which can be a lot to manage. Help your child learn proper time management skills so they can effectively balance school work, extra-curriculars, and still get to bed on time.
High School Students
The teenage years are a major time for brain development, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. This section of the brain is responsible for judgement and decision-making, both short-term and long-term.
Sleep in the teenage years is essential for helping the prefrontal cortex continue development. By the time a student is in high school they become more independent and like to try to set their own rules, so helping guide them on a path to healthy sleep will be more challenging at this age. Luckily, by this age teenagers also need less sleep than they previously required.
Do your best to help your teenager understand the importance and value of consistent sleep so they can make their own sound decisions. These are also years where students experience a lot of stress and anxiety keeping them up at night. Keep open lines of communication with your teenager to help them process and understand their emotions so nothing stands in the way of their sleep.
Once your child leaves your home, you have less say in their sleeping habits, but you can still help them appreciate the value of good rest. Encourage your college student to cut back on the all-nighters and to keep up the healthy practices they learned at home. Help them set up their dorm room in a way that makes the environment more conducive of sleep. Lay out the footprints for success to help them value their sleep.
Healthy sleeping habits are important for a lifetime, but it’s especially critical that students get the sleep they need to help them learn information as they are growing and developing.
If you, or someone close to you, is experiencing challenges academically, look to sleep as a possible contributor. Irregular sleep, sleep disorders, and poor-quality sleep all are quantifiable contributors to lowered academic performance. This is a world-wide problem that affects students from preschool through medical school years, and results in pervasive cognitive problems and lower GPAs.
We’re here at Mattress Advisor to help you find all the resources you need to help your child adopt and maintain healthy sleeping habits for the rest of their lives.
Sleep Guide for Parents: Newborns, Infants, Toddlers, and Teens
Learn about sleep at all ages. From battling sleep challenges with newborns to teens, our exhaustive guide covers everything parents need to know about sleep in their children.
How College Students Can Get Better Sleep
Learn why it’s so important for college students to prioritize sleep and read about 52 ways to get better sleep during this busy and challenging time.