Sleep Deprived Students = Executive Function Challenges
(from SOS4Students Director Beth Samuelson)
An often-overlooked factor in weak executive function is sleep loss. Students who fail to get good sleep aren’t at the top of their game. Troubles with executive function often lead to poor academic performance.
In a recent coaching session, an 8th-grade student expressed worry about his history class project on the American Revolution. He was having a hard time staying focused and was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of notes he had to take and the amount of writing involved. I noticed he was yawning repeatedly.
“What do you think is going on?” I wondered.
“I’m having trouble sleeping lately,” he replied.
When I asked him to tell me more, he seemed relieved to talk.
“I’m going to bed at 9:30 every night, but I wake up around 1 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep,” he explained. “The problem is I have to get up early, like 6:45, so if I don’t sleep well, I’m grumpy in the morning.”
As a lifelong night owl, I am sympathetic to stressed out students whose bodies want to stay up late but who are forced to adhere to adult-friendly schedules that are counter to their circadian rhythms.
“How is phone and computer use at night going?” I asked.
He said he turns the computer off right before bed, but he might scroll his phone for 30 minutes or more past bedtime, watching skateboarding and basketball videos on YouTube. So, while technically in bed by 9:30, he was often up much later, finding it difficult to wind down.
“Do you think I should stop watching videos?” He asked.
“Yes,” I replied. It was an answer he did not want to hear. “Keep your phone out of the bedroom and use an alarm clock to wake up with.”
Four important facts about teens and sleep:
- Adolescents experience delayed releases of melatonin compared to adults. This leads to later nighttime sleep patterns and later wake ups in the morning.
- Teens often try to go to bed too early for their body clocks or too late. As a result, they end up struggling with insomnia or sleeping through their alarms.
- Poor sleep affects executive function in significant ways. Exhausted students can’t make decisions, do their homework, manage time, make study plans, or follow through with goals.
- Students suffering from sleep loss may fall into depression or become increasing irritable and anxious. Their grades may drop.
As parents and caregivers, check in regularly to see how your student is sleeping. Luckily, there are solutions for getting better sleep.
- Sleep experts recommend shutting off all devices one hour before bed, without exception.
- Get homework done and in the backpack, and make choices about clothes and breakfast the night before (not in the morning).
- Allow bedtimes after 10:30 pm if your student struggles with nighttime wake up and insomnia.
- Don’t toss and turn in bed trying to force sleep. Turn a small light on and read a book. Listening to calm music is helpful too (but no computer and no phone!).
- Do something sleep inducing before bed, such as taking a warm bath or enjoying a cup of non-caffeinated tea.
- Don’t try to start or push through work when exhausted. Executive function can’t function without proper sleep.
- Take no naps, not even a short one. Naps can leave students feeling jet lagged and in another time zone.
- Consult with a cognitive behavioral therapist or sleep doctor who can help explore sleep deprivation issues and make recommendations.
- Consider that anxiety may be the root of student sleep issues. Often, anxiety is short-lived and situational, but if it becomes chronic, therapeutic intervention may be warranted. If possible, find a therapist who can see your teen in person vs online.
SOS4Students Can Help
SOS4Students has decades of experience working with students to overcome executive function challenges and improve academic performance. If you have questions or concerns about your student’s sleep habits, contact us today to discuss how we can work with you and your student to help recommend and/or deliver appropriate services.