How Does Sleep Affect Children's Learning?
As parents we are all well aware of the importance of a good sleep on a school night. We say no staying up late or an extra story as we know our children need to have a proper night’s sleep before school the next day, but why? What’s actually going on inside their brains while they’re asleep that doesn’t happen if their sleep is disrupted? We are going to dive into the science behind sleep to understand why a bad night can have a knock-on effect to learning.
In order to understand how sleep affects learning, first, we need to understand what learning is! One way to look at it is the formation of new memories. Whether it’s learning the life cycle of a frog, which letters form which sounds or how to tie your shoelaces, it’s all about hearing, seeing or experiencing new things and then remembering them forever.
Formation of memories
Although sleep and memory are not fully understood by scientists, many studies have been done to try and understand how minor events can become permanent memories printed on our brains forever (or at least until we’ve passed our GCSEs!)
Memories are formed in three parts:
- Acquisition - The introduction of new information, concepts and actions to the brain.
- Consolidation - This is when the thought is solidified into a memory, or learned, with the result that it will stay in the brain for a long period.
- Recall - The ability to go through the mental archives and pull out that memory or piece of information on demand later.
From nursery and preschool upward, children are given new information all day, which they must acquire and absorb into their minds in order to learn and progress. Whilst the acquisition and recall stages of the process can only happen while they’re awake, the consolidation stage can only happen during sleep.
Whilst we sleep, our brains process all of the information from our day, and consolidate it into long term memories. During sleep the brain strengthens neural connections, and effectively stores the day’s information to the hard drive, ready to be pulled up and remembered next time it’s needed.
Sleep and memory
If a child has poor sleep, too little sleep or disrupted sleep their brain does not have the time it needs to work through this consolidation stage, resulting in some of the information getting lost and not turned into lasting memories or lessons learned. Basically you’ll get some corrupted files as the download is interrupted when you wake before it’s completed! If this happens regularly it will begin to have an effect on the child’s learning success, as they won’t be able to recall the foundation lessons that they have already been taught in order to move on.
The most effective time for the brain to go through this consolidation process is the sleep immediately after the information has been gained. This means that although you may be able to physically ‘catch up’ on lost sleep with a couple of good nights, your body might feel better but the memories have already been lost. You can’t go back and properly recall the information that has not been fully consolidated during the disrupted sleep so you will find that your memory of it is incorrect, confused, or you can’t remember it at all.
Sleep and concentration
Not only does sleep deprivation cause reduced memory and recall, it also leads to poor concentration and low energy the next day. We all know that a tired child can not be made to do something they don’t want to do, and can’t be reasoned with! This is not a great mindset for learning, and won’t lead to a productive and positive day. Difficulty concentrating will cause them to struggle to sit through a long lesson and give it their full attention, and can lead to poor and disruptive behaviour.
Sleep and learning
So a bad night’s sleep will reduce the amount of memory consolidation a child’s brain can do, meaning that they won’t hold on to as much learning from the the day before as they might have. It will also reduce the effectiveness of their learning the following day, as they struggle to concentrate and take part in the lesson as they are supposed to.
So if you want your child to do well in school it really is important to help them look after their sleep routine! No child will sleep a perfect stretch every night, they all have nightmares, lose their covers, need 27 wees and a glass of room temperature water, but as long as you keep gently putting them back to bed and do your best to keep them in a routine where their body knows what time they are supposed to sleep and wake every night, you’ll be setting them up for success.
We can’t promise that a good night’s sleep will turn any child into the next Einstein, but at least they might remember how to tie their own shoelaces, which is a good start!