Deputy Head's Blog: Adolescent Sleep and Educational Performance

Adolescent Sleep and Educational Performance

The Chartered College of Teaching produces a monthly journal for its members. This month’s journal focused heavily upon the Science of Learning and contains articles and research evidence pertaining to the latest scientific developments and knowledge with regard to the adolescent brain. The array of articles explains the potential impact on teaching and learning that the latest scientific research about the human brain reveals. 

Of the many interesting articles contained in this month’s journal, I was drawn to the research findings related to adolescent sleep patterns and the impact upon educational performance.

I summarise the main thrust of this extremely informative and interesting article below:

Sleep is fundamental for learning, memory consolidation and information processing, alongside restoration and repair of the body. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to sleep disruption around the time of puberty, as both physical and behavioural changes impact upon sleep, which, in turn, can influence their ability to engage in the classroom and learn.

Reference is made to the impact that blue light has on a person’s photoreceptors. Bright light increases alertness, so, if adolescents are exposed to relatively bright light before bedtime, this will increase alertness and delay the onset of sleep. The light emitted from TV screens, tablets and phones is blue light enriched. Parents - time to review the number of electronic devices in bedrooms that emit blue light!

The National Sleep Foundation recommended in 2015 that 14 to 17-year-old adolescents should have eight to ten hours of sleep each night. Studies estimate that   pupils lose, on average, 120 minutes of sleep a night on School nights, comparative to sleep during the holidays. UK adolescents are achieving around seven hours of sleep each evening.

It is well established that insufficient sleep is associated with reduced attention, impaired learning and poorer academic performance and has also been associated with mood and emotional deficits.

The impact of any delay in sleep/wake time is described as asking a teenager to wake for School at 07.00 as being the same as asking an adult to wake at around 05.00!

A small number of schools in America (where schools start earlier, at about 07.30) have taken part in interventions to address the timings of the school day. It has been established that later school start times were associated with an improvement in attendance, a reduction in sleepiness in class and improved academic performance.

Delaying school start times allows adolescents the opportunity to sleep at times more aligned with their chronotype - chronotype being the tendency for the individual to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour period.

Many adolescents experience chronic sleep depravation during the school week. The resultant shortened sleep in these individuals predisposes them to poorer educational outcomes and poorer health.

In response, small scale studies around the world have begun to look at school-based interventions to improve the sleep of teenagers, primarily by delaying school start times. If we are serious about improving the quality of life and educational performances of teenagers, then it is essential that we generate the evidence base to develop interventions within the school environment to improve sleep.

The article proposes that a large scale and quantitative evaluation of the benefits of a delayed start in UK schools (such as 10.00) is required to contribute to such an evidence base!

It is hard to oppose such scientific research, (much more is contained in the article). It presents an interesting challenge for schools who have implemented timings of the school day for many, many years, assuming that such timings are appropriate. However, if such an adjustment to the start of the school day would impact upon educational performance and the health of our pupils, surely it is worthy of serious consideration?

We live in interesting times…….