Helping Kids Sleep Better: The Overlooked Key to Grades and School Success

by | Aug 21, 2013 | Parenting, School Success and Learning

American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that 1 in 3 kids are sleep-deprived–here is how to help your child get those needed z-z-z-z-s

School success impacts our children for the rest of their life: it influences their self-esteem, college selections, job attainment, financial success, and even their choice of spouses. It’s no wonder we go to such great lengths to try and give our kids an academic edge. But despite our good intentions we often overlook a simple strategy that impacts academic success—making sure our kids are getting enough zzz’s. Research shows that a lack of sleep can have a serious impact on children’s abilities to learn, focus and perform at school. In fact, a study from the University of British Columbia found that sleep deprivation can hinder neuron growth in the brain during teen years, a critical time for cognitive development. As of this writing schools or schools districts in 21 states have instituted delayed start times to let teens sleep longer.

REALITY CHECK: Tel Aviv University researchers found that missing just one hour of sleep can be enough to reduce a child’s cognitive abilities by almost two years the next day. For example, a sixth grader who loses precious zzz’s the night before a big test could end up performing at a fourth grade level. Is your child getting enough sleep? A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a mere 7.6% of teens get the recommended 9 to 10 hours of sleep, 23.5% get eight hours and 38.7% are seriously sleep-deprived at six or fewer hours a night. What’s more almost 90 percent of their parents believe their kids are getting enough sleep, even though they’re not. The result of sleep deprivation? Kids who are more likely to be cranky, irritable, hyper, moody, have chronic headaches, as well lower grades and test scores and trouble focusing in school.

8 Tips to Help Kids Get a Good Night’s Sleep 

Here are surprisingly simple solutions that every parent should have in their toolbox to improve their kids’ academic success as they head back to school. The trick is to create a bedtime routine tailored to your child’s unique temperament, body clock and sleep needs, and then stick to it.

Set a regular bedtime schedule

Identify your child’s sleep needs, then announce the bedtime hour and stick to it. Research finds that parents who don’t enforce a regular bedtime experience have kids with more nighttime disturbances.

Sync your kid’s body clock to the schedule

Plan ahead to help your child’s sleep schedule during weekends or vacation be in sync with the school schedule. If the new bedtime is more than one hour different you may need to gradually phase in the new sleep times to help your child adjust. Shortening the bedtime by twenty minutes each night might help just as you would when traveling to adjust your body clock to another time zone. Beware: the process can take several days to several weeks.

Start bedtime prep earlier

Begin the “getting ready” process at least 20 to 30 minutes before lights-out. The wind-down time helps calm the child and gets you out of the battle. For younger children try hanging a picture chart showing the sequence of bedtime events such as light snack, bath, pajamas, brush teeth, bedtime story, prayers, say goodnight. Then stick to that same nightly routine every night until it becomes a habit.

Create wind-down rituals

Many kids are so wired from stress, exercising, studying or cramped schedules that it’s tough for them to drift off when the lights go out. If your child needs time to wind-down time, add it into the nighttime schedule. Those old rituals (taking a warm bath, writing in a journal, taking a shower, reading, sipping warm milk) do help prepare kids’ bodies for a better night’s sleep. The trick is to help your child discover what works for him, and then do the same ritual every night to help him relax.

Revise the nighttime scheduled

Educate an older child about sleep stealers and then encourage her to revise her schedule so she gets a better night’s rest. Start by asking: “How many hours do you think you need for a good night’s sleep? Okay, then let’s think of ways to help you get those hours.”

Turn off flashing images

Flashing images affect REM, so be sure to turn off the computer, video games and television at least thirty minutes prior to bedtime. Tell your teen: “Turn off the computer or TV screen at least a half hour before bedtime. Those flicking lights signal to your brain to stay alert.”

Halt those energy drinks!

Tell your teen, “Those energy drinks help you now but they’ll also keep you awake at night.” Or: “What time do you think you should stop drinking that cola?” Also, watch out for known caffeinated sleep stealers like cold medications, coffee or chocolate.

Hide that cell!

Take away your kids’ cell phones during nighttime hours. Sixty two percent of kids admit they text or talk after the lights go out and their parents are clueless. Kids who get enough sleep are not only more likely to function better and are less likely to be moody or act out. All the more reasons to get your kid on a good sleep routine. Best!

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapter “Sleepless” in my book,  The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. for more solutions to improve school success refer to the chapters: “Learning Disabilities,” “Bullying,” “Cheating,” “Disorganized,” “Gives Up,” “Homework,” “Impulsive,” “Stressed,” and “Test Anxiety.” You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development. Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba