Lack of sleep blights pupils' education

Sleep deprivation chart

Sleep deprivation is a significant hidden factor in lowering the achievement of school pupils, according to researchers carrying out international education tests.

It is a particular problem in more affluent countries, with sleep experts linking it to the use of mobile phones and computers in bedrooms late at night.

Sleep deprivation is such a serious disruption that lessons have to be pitched at a lower level to accommodate sleep-starved learners, the study found.

The international comparison, carried out by Boston College, found the United States to have the highest number of sleep-deprived students, with 73% of 9 and 10-year-olds and 80% of 13 and 14-year-olds identified by their teachers as being adversely affected.

In literacy tests there were 76% of 9 and 10-year-olds lacking sleep.

This was much higher than the international average of 47% of primary pupils needing more sleep and 57% among the secondary age group.

Achievement gap

Other countries with the most sleep-deprived youngsters were New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Australia, England, Ireland and France. High-performing Finland is also among the most lacking in sleep.

The BBC's Jane O'Brien reports on how lack of sleep impairs learning

Countries with the best records for getting enough sleep include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Japan and Malta.

The analysis was part of the huge data-gathering process for global education rankings - the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

Start Quote

I think we underestimate the impact of sleep... on average, children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading”

End Quote Chad Minnich Researcher

These are among the biggest international benchmarks for education standards, based on tests taken by more than 900,000 pupils in primary and secondary schools in more than 50 countries and regional administrations.

The rankings of results for maths, science and reading were published at the end of last year, with Asian education systems dominating the top of the tables.

But the researchers also wanted to find out more about the influence of home life. There has been much analysis of the impact of family wealth and poverty, but the Boston College researchers also wanted to measure factors such as sleep and nutrition.

So the tests were accompanied by questionnaires for teachers, pupils and parents about sleep patterns. And this information was compared with pupils' test results, so that the performance in maths, science and literacy could be compared with levels of sleep.

Brain food

"I think we underestimate the impact of sleep. Our data show that across countries internationally, on average, children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show," says Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center.

"It's the same link for children who are lacking basic nutrition," says Mr Minnich, based at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

Smartphones Mobile phones and computers in the bedroom are blamed for disrupting sleep

"If you are unable to concentrate, to attend mentally, you are unable to achieve at your optimal level, because your mind and body are in need of something more basic.

"Sleep is a fundamental need for all children. If teachers report such large proportions of children suffering from lack of sleep, it's having a significant impact.

"But worse than that, teachers are having to modify their instruction based on those children who are suffering from a lack of sleep.

"The children who are suffering from a lack of sleep are driving down instruction."

That means that even the children who are getting enough sleep are still suffering from this sleep-related dumbing-down.

Cramming school

The researchers uncovered regional trends that bucked expectations.

Asian countries are the highest-performing in maths tests - and Mr Minnich says this has often been associated with long hours and cramming in after-school classes.

Start Quote

Having a computer screen that is eight inches away from your face is going to expose you to a lot more light than watching a television on the opposite side of the room”

End Quote Dr Karrie Fitzpatrick Northwestern University, Illinois

"One would assume that they would be extremely tired," he said. "And yet when we look at the sleep factor for them, they don't necessarily seem to be suffering from as much sleep deprivation as the other countries."

Getting a good night's sleep isn't going to transform an underperforming country into an education superpower. For instance, the least sleepy pupils seem to be in Azerbaijan, but they are still considerably behind the most sleep-deprived pupils in Finland.

But researchers say that it does show how differently individual pupils might be placed on the ability spectrum, with lack of sleep representing the difference between being high-performing and average.

There are also big changes as pupils get older. Younger pupils in South Korea have among the lowest levels of sleep deprivation in the world, but in secondary school they have some of the worst problems.

There are differences within countries too. At the level of US states, among secondary pupils Colorado has a much worse problem with lack of sleep than Massachusetts.

What the study does not show is why young people are missing out on sleep - or why more technologically advanced countries seem to have the biggest difficulties.

But sleep experts point to a particular problem due to technology in children's bedroom - specifically the use of screens on smartphones or laptops late at night.

Serious barrier to learning

It isn't only that young people are kept awake by messaging their friends or using the internet. The light from the screen, held close to the face, is physically disruptive to the natural onset of sleep.

"Having a computer screen that is eight inches away from your face is going to expose you to a lot more light than watching a television on the opposite side of the room," says Karrie Fitzpatrick, sleep researcher at Northwestern University in Illinois.

"It's going to tell your brain to stay awake," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

Commuters in Thailand Sleep exhaustion has become part of the 24-hour culture

"That light can reset the whole circadian rhythm system and say, 'Wait a minute, it's not time to go to bed'."

Lack of sleep is also a serious physical barrier to learning.

"Sleepiness is a problem at all stages that are relevant to learning, memory and academic performance," says Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

Research into sleep disorders and brain function has shown the importance of sleep in memory and consolidating information.

Without sleep, the brain struggles to absorb and retain ideas.

"There is a growing interest in the associations between adequate sleep and academic performance," says Prof Dijk.

'Loss can be reversed'

Dr Fitzpatrick says lack of sleep is going to leave pupils more emotionally volatile, more potentially disruptive and physically struggling to learn.

And she says that the loss of sleep and short-term attempts to catch up can cause further and complex disruptions to the way the brain tries to store information.

But there is good news. If you start getting enough sleep on a regular basis, the loss to learning can be reversed.

"As long you haven't gone into extreme sleep deprivation, if you go back to seven to nine hours per night, as long as there has been no permanent damage, you can probably restore the functionality of accumulating, processing and being able to recall memories," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

"The basis of learning will likely be restored to normal levels."

Otherwise trying to study without sleep is going to be tough. "Your brain is running on empty."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    As an engineering student, I have learned there are 3 things in life: Work, Sleep and Socialising.

    Due to there only being 24 hours in a day, you only get to pick two of the above, so choose wisely :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Aye when i were a kid I had a candle under me sack, twas a bit cramped thirty to a chimney, but it did me no harm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Lots of factors. Teenagers are proven to have a disposition to being night-birds - its encoded into many of them. The tech issue isn't central , I remember dozing in school often, I'd stayed up to listen to music, read a book or watch TV. Trying to enforce un-sleepy teens bed-times doesn't work, my parents tried it, I tried it. Now, if we did senior school a little later in our lives...

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Operational definitions? Control groups? Double-Blind design? Researchers used teachers to assess sleep deprivation? Are these the same teachers who believe they are overworked, underpaid?

    Look for the Union label.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    I don't know if technology is entirely to blame. partly for sure, but my younger sister is a junior at an arts school so she is at school late, we live about thirty minutes out of town and by the time we get home she is already exhausted, but then she has at least three hours of homework... It seems a bit excessive to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    My parents were awful people who made me get to sleep by 2100 or earlier every night. Maybe that's why I made good marks in all my exams, and kept this discipline in college and at work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    Students have always been subject to a lack of 'proper' sleep. More important though is the fact of them having to go through reems of pompous garble to get to the point in any subject they are studying. It is not sleep that is the problem it is the teaching processes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.


    Thing is, where their kids go to Uni, they will go off the rails. I saw it week in week out for the first couple of months in my first year.

    My folks were quite liberal with how late I could stay out, and didn't mind if a had the odd too many drink with mates. The novelty had worn off by the time I had to fend for myself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Although this is an incredibly interesting article and raises some very important points that I agree with, not once is there any actual mention as to the AMOUNT of the sleep that is actually needed for these children. How can parents know if their child is getting the right amount of sleep?

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    ".. .When i was 13 my parents dispensed with bed times and just told me not to make any noise after 9. I soon discovered that staying up until 1 wasn't viable and learned the value of sleep on my own. Why can't people on here let their children do this?"

    Because they don't want them to make the mistakes that they made ... it's called loving them .. not 'let's wait and hope'!

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    I am so glad I don't have kids in this day and age.

    I remember being a kid myself, and when Mum & Dad said no to something, it made me want it even more. Kids of today are no doubt the same.

    If you try and tell kids they can't do something they will do it regardless, unless you lock them in a padded cell.

    My phone never gets into my bedroom - I look at it when I have Breakfast!

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    one of my friends texted me on blackberry messsenger all night, when i woke up i saw the messages on my blackberry. In class time i told her what?! and she was about to sleep!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    I agree with Osaka Maachan. Students in Japan sleep everywhere, and on their phones and computers constantly. I don't agree with this study's reasoning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Wow there's some smug sanctimonious parents on here...

    Your children went to bed early without a TV etc blah blah blah.

    Like food, its everything in moderation... If my kids aren't too tired they are allowed to watch a bit of TV. If they are clearly tired, early bath, early night.

    Guess what? Happy Kids, doing well at school. Bad parent that I am, I even let them have the odd McDonalds!

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    They can can catch up with their sleep when they have finished their education, it's not like there are any jobs for todays youth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    210. deadpansean
    Well just whose convenience is it for then?
    Whats the point if there is no social convenience for us all to enjoy.
    Or is it just the employers that are to benefit?


    Surely its for the consumer... aka, us...

    I don't think I want my bank, supermarket, council, Dr, dentist, car/home insurers call centre open from 2am to 6am.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I think it's a great idea to have a 1 hr "no technology" time before your normal sleep time. My wife and I have cut out phones / laptops / tablets / TV for about an hour before our normal sleep time. It really allows your brain to relax and I have found that I am sleeping slightly less but feel more "awake" in the morning. If I had kids, I would definately trial this on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    One thing the article fails to touch on is that the human sleep cycle naturally shifts later during the teenage years. This, combined with the very early start to the school day in some jurisdictions (In the US, average high school starts at 7:15 am) will lead to sleep deprived pupils. Of course, fixing this would require time and money. Far easier to blame young people for being young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    There is a huge pressure to achieve here in the US, a huge amount of competition. However the US does seem to respect quantity over quality. Someone who works 12 hour days or is on the road 45 weeks of the year is often held in higher regard than someone who's quality of work is better but has a better life/work balance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    #209 That is my point, every person is different. Just because a child is up late at night, doesn't mean they'll be sleep deprived.

    During my last year of high school around exams i got into watching a TV show so much so that i would watch it constantly all night and wouldn't sleep. For me, it didn't affect my grades at school or how alert i was.

    Its a shame people jump to wrong conclusions.


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