As the beginning of the school year approaches, students will return to their school year sleep schedules.
The number of hours that a toddler, child or teen sleeps is crucial to their brain development, academic performance and behavior, according to a 2022 study found that children not getting the correct amount of sleep had less gray matter in their brains. The University of Maryland study looked at children ages 6-12 over a one to two years.
”They found that 50 percent of (children) 6 to 12 years of age were not getting the appropriate amount of sleep,” said Dr. David Levine of the Atlantic Health System.
“They performed brain MRI scans on the kids and found that they had less gray matter, which meant their brains were smaller than children with more sleep.”
The amount of gray matter in children’s brains is related to memory, attention and emotional control.
”If you think about a sleep-deprived child, they may have less volume in their brain for attention, memory and emotional control,” according to the study, Levine said. “Now you have kids who are potentially unable to focus in school, their grades drop and they cannot control themselves emotionally.”
The number of hours of sleep needed varies with age. Children age 3 to 5 are recommended to get 10 to 13 hours of sleep. Children age 6 to 12 should get nine to 12 hours of sleep, while those age 12 to 18 should get 8 to 10 hours.
Half of children and teens do not get the recommended amount of sleep for their age, Levine said.
”Good quality sleep is essential to children who are in the process of growing their brains and assimilating information,” said Dr. Samer El Zarif of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine Services of Garnet Health in New York.
A firm sleep schedule should allow children and teens to get enough sleep each night.
High school students are most sleep-deprived.
”Students do very late nights in sports or clubs and then come home to do hours of school work, and then you’re up late,” said Melissa Varcardiponi, a social worker at Counseling in Comfort, a mental health service in Sparta, N.J.
She noted that parents of older teens usually monitor social media or device usage. Without parental intervention, students may stay up longer scrolling on their phones or playing video games cutting into their sleep.
A sleep pattern seen in high school students is a phenomenon called sleep debt.
”A lot of teens are going to bed after 10 (the recommended bedtime), so now you have kids getting, say, six hours of sleep at night. Then they try to make up the difference on the weekends and go into sleep debt,” Levine said.
Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep people need and the amount they get. For example, if people sleep four hours instead of eight, they are have four hours of sleep debt.
”The amount of pressure students are under either by parents or perceptions of society on the amount of work they feel they have to do to achieve anything in life puts so much pressure on them, so where does sleep stand? Sleep becomes lower and lower on the priority list,” he said.
Kathleen VanWie, a guidance counselor in the Delaware Valley School District, sees the effects on students of lack of sleep.
”Lack of sleep negatively affects students behaviorally and academically. Sleep deprivation contributes to attention problems, which directly correlates with classroom performance,” she said.
“Students who do not get enough sleep have difficulty with emotional regulation, negatively impacting their interactions with peers.”
At Delaware Valley, if a teacher or staff member sees a student who may have noticeable issues with sleep, they recommend that the student contact a guidance counselor or school nurse.
Effect of stress
Health professionals report that various factors, such as schedule changes, family issues and other daily stresses can cause sleep irregularities.
”Many times, parents will contact us to let us know of specific situations that may have caused the child to be falling asleep. If it is occurring frequently, we will contact parents, inform them of what is going on and see if we can assist them and offer any advice,” said VanWie.
COVID-19 upset daily schedules and a lack of structure amid virtual instruction vastly changed students’ sleep schedules.
”I think the pandemic did affect everyone’s sleep schedule. There was no schedule. Students would only have to log into Zoom, and some couldn’t even do that and would sleep right through it,” Varcardiponi said.
Levine believes that teens were affected most by the pandemic.
”There were all the upheavals during the pandemic with family illnesses and specifically the increases in anxiety and depression, which has a major impact on sleep. Sometimes it increases or decreases sleep, but overall it decreases sleep quality,” he said.
Later starting times
As the pandemic retreated, the shift to normalcy created hardships for students trying to get back into a routine and there was a new focus on mental health.
”Students post-pandemic were not used to schedules. So it took some time for students to get back into the school routine, just like it does after the summer break,” said VanWie.
Schools nationwide reported sleep issues with many students, and districts implemented different solutions to help them maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
The Associated Press reported in early May that many schools made changes to enable a better sleep schedule for their students.
Upper Darby High School in Drexel, Pa., is one of many pushing back the start time of the school day; classes there now start at 9:30 a.m., rather than 7:30.
”A couple of school districts in New Jersey have changed their start time for high schoolers to get up later, and what they have seen is improvements academically and in mental health - showing you the importance of sleep,” Levine said.
A lot of teens are going to bed after 10 (the recommended bedtime), so now you have kids getting, say, six hours of sleep at night. Then they try to make up the difference on the weekends and go into sleep debt.” - Dr. David Levine, Atlantic Health System, New Jersey