Helping students build optimal sleep habits

Sleep helps memory, mood, motivation and attention, meaning better sleep habits are a simple way to improve your learning.
Published in Neuroscience
Helping students build optimal sleep habits

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A lack of sleep is a common problem among high school students, but sleep deprivation can do serious damage. It can hamper mental activity and result in poor academic performance.  Adolescents may need up to two hours more sleep than when they were younger for their brains to consolidate and cement new knowledge and experience into memory, and to avoid behaviors associated with sleep deprivation that interfere with cognitive and attention skills.

Many brain functions become considerably less efficient after a sleepless night. Sleep-deprived children display lower brain activity while working on math problems than they do when rested, and they make more mistakes on tests. Brain scans of subjects doing simple verbal learning tasks show that the temporal lobe, important for language processing, works less effectively when subjects are tired.  

In another study, one group of subjects tried to memorize short lists of words on an afternoon following a full night’s sleep; the comparison group tried the same task after about 35 hours without sleep. Word recall and recognition dropped sharply in the sleep-deprived group.

Get your students to keep sleep diaries  

Middle and high school educators recognize that many of their students don’t seem to function well in the first hours of the school day. Twenty percent of all middle and high school students fall asleep in school. As a result, some middle schools and high schools have begun starting the school day later to allow adolescent students the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights - about 8.5 to 9.5 hours.  

With so much to do during school, teenagers need all the help they can get to work at peak efficiency. It may also surprise you to know that teens need as much sleep as young children (at least nine hours) to avoid behaviors associated with sleep deprivation. In order to help them realize the value of sleep, it’s an important topic to introduce into the classroom.  

Students should be taught about the influence of sleep on their brains, especially regarding mood and memory. Self-observations, using a sleep diary, will help them see the strong correlation between adequate sleep and their ability to stay awake and effectively focus in school and on homework. Further motivation will come when they see the relationship between their sleep and better moods, test scores, homework successes, and physical performances.

In their sleep diaries, students should record what time they went to bed, when they woke, and how long they slept. During the week, as they keep the diary, they should also have a few minutes after arriving to school to describe how they feel. Are they energetic? Tired? Alert?  

After completing the diary, engage students in a class discussion about their findings. Help them to recognize the correlation between proper hours of sleep, how they feel the next day, and the impact of sleep on their emotional state and academic powers.  How did their sleep hours influence their alertness and memory of homework the following day?

Another thing to do is to have students observe the effectiveness of time spent studying followed by a full night’s sleep, versus the same amount of time studying followed by less than seven hours of sleep.  This will give them the awareness of how it can take up to twice as long to memorize information when they are fatigued as it does when they are more alert.

When they see how sleep can cement their studying, they will be more motivated to make sure their hours of study result in permanent memories so that they won’t have to study the same material again for the final exam. After they recognize the importance of sleep, advise them on how they can get the most from their study time. Explain that if they review their notes thoroughly, stop, and go to sleep when they begin to feel drowsy, thus helping them get adequate sleep, the quality and quantity of retained memory is far better than working while tired.

Teach students that not all sleep is equal

Students are more likely to comply with the recommendations when you let them know about the benefits of sleep and the conse­quences that sleep deprivation has on their academic success and physical health.

One aspect that will resonate is the timing of the quality sleep that is most powerful. Background information to share, after their motivation is boosted by their sleep diary insights, includes description of the 90-minute cycles of sleep that their brains go through during the night.

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep takes up most of the 90-minute cycles during the first six hours of sleep. During these stages, when there is less muscle movement and less temperature regulation, dreaming takes place.

Non-REM (slowest brain wave) sleep is most prominent during the cycles that occur after about six hours of sleep. Research indicates that increasing sleep time from six or less hours to eight hours can increase memory and alertness up to 25%. Studies show that students who sleep less than six hours a night generally have poorer grades, even if they report the same number of study hours. In fact, a study of students who received low grades (C’s, D’s, F’s) revealed that they obtained about 25 minutes less sleep and went to bed an average of 40 minutes later on school nights than students with high grades (A’s and B’s).

You can share the information that memory storage in the brain is most efficient during these uninterrupted, deep non-REM sleep. This is when what they learned and experienced that day is reprocessed to build a clearer understanding of the day’s events. During this sleep state their brains make relationships and connections between new learning and prior knowledge as concept understanding builds and problems are solved.

You can show students pictures of what happens in the brain when the process of neuroplasticity constructs memories. When students see the process by which their brain transforms recent memories into long-term memories, by building and extending the branches that connect the neurons holding the memories, they will have more motivation about their ability to influence their memory construction.

Emphasize the power of their brain’s neuroplastic construction of powerful memories during their non-REM sleep, most prominent after about six hours of sleep. They will see the value of sleeping these extended hours when they know their brain cell networks are linking newly learned information with previously stored, related knowledge to consolidate the memories.  

You can also have them try another self-observation about which interventions are most helpful to their being able to fall asleep. You can give them some examples of strategies to try out:

  • Regular sleep and wake times
  • Bedrooms kept quiet and dark
  • Avoiding bright screen time during the hour before sleep        

With their own sleep diaries and what they learn from you about the physiology of sleep, students can make more informed decisions, sometimes choosing an extra hour of sleep over an hour spent playing video games or sending text messages. They will understand that it is better to review their notes thoroughly and go to sleep for nine hours than to cram for the extra hour. 


Adolescents need even more sleep than during their preadolescent years to cement memory and avoid the problems of sleep deprivation. Your efforts to guide them to better sleep behaviors are vital so they understand that sleep deprivation puts them at higher risk of a whole range of potential problems, from depression to automobile accidents. Your intervention will guide them to take measures to get the sleep the need – for learning and life.

This article was originally published in The Guardian in 2016

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Go to the profile of Jay Martino
about 6 years ago

Judy - one way I got through my students is the idea of leveling up. If you stay up late to level up your online character, what effect is that having to your real world body?

Additionally the excess blue light they absorb ( from all their phone and computer screens disrupts their sleep rhythms, so is it worth it the cost? "Yeah but I sleep it on Saturdays " isn't the answer - it's about the quality of sleep and addressing the root cause of the issue.

Go to the profile of Judy Willis
about 6 years ago

Excellent points! Thanks