Are Your Child’s Poor Grades Due to a Lack of Sleep?

If you have children or grandchildren in school, chances are that they’re just not getting enough sleep to keep them at the top of the class. Sleep deprivation is a special issue for kids in Kindergarten to eighth grade, as they are going through a shift in their biological clock schedules, causing them to naturally want to stay up later than they strictly should, given the fact that they need to get up before the sun.

Older adolescents need about nine hours of sleep each night to function at their peak and grow into healthy, happy adults. But what’s the link between not getting enough sleep and learning? Two things:

1. Drowsy students can’t focus in class and aren’t able to process information effectively. They may even fall asleep in the classroom, meaning that they aren’t learning anything and could even possibly get themselves into quite a bit of trouble with the teacher and school administration.

2. During the hours children spend asleep, their brain goes back over the events of the day, making that time a mental stage, of sorts. Dozens of peer-reviewed research studies have documented that the time spent rehashing the day’s events on that mental stage helps to promote moving temporary memories into the more important permanent ones. Basically, sleep helps to solidify what kids learn in class.

Recently, two new studies have shown what actually happens during sleep to help accomplish this consolidation of memories. Just like a computer hard drive, the brain has the ability to store information for future use. Info that is taken in during the day stays in the mind in real time as nerve impulses that move through specific networks of the brain. As long as those impulses are present, so are memories. If the impulse patterns are changed in some way (for example, due to a lack of sleep), that information is lost and becomes useless.

For several decades, scientists have known that information is stored in the synapses between neurons in the brain, but they used to think that learning involved those synapses having repeated use. We now know that impulse patterns during sleep provide the necessary repetition needed to stimulate synapse growth, and thereby, true learning in children and adults.

One of those new sleep studies showed that the synapses in mice change chemistry and structure while they slept, becoming narrower and decreasing the number of neurotransmitter receptors. This causes the stimulation that is needed for learning to occur and also helps to remove interfering and irrelevant information that is collected throughout the day. One way to think of this process is sleep providing a process for “smart forgetting,” enabling true learning and retention to occur.

The second study also used mice and was able to confirm the evidence found in the first study, while also going one step further by discovering a specific receptor called glutamate that is activated by a gene that creates an excitatory neurotransmitter in order to better process memories and lessons learned during sleep each night.

So what’s the bottom line?

The more sleep that kids are able to get, the more time there is for the synaptic changes to occur that stores what they learn in the classroom on the “hard drive” of the brain.

And parents that want to support their little Einsteins can give them the best shot at academic success by making sure that they are getting at least nine hours of solid sack time each and every night.