Written by Sarah Westgreen, Contributing Writer for InFluential Magazine
We all need sleep to function well in daily life, and students are no exception. Although teens and young adults often get by on very little sleep due to lifestyle and sleep cycle changes, it is not without consequence.
Sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on cognition, learning, and performance at school. But getting enough sleep can enhance memory consolidation and concentration.
Why Students Can’t Sleep Well
When puberty hits, adolescents experience a change in their circadian rhythm. This shift pushes sleep time back, even when their schedule requires an earlier bedtime.
Students who previously felt sleepy around 8 or 9 p.m. may no longer feel tired until 10 or 11 p.m. Their sleep schedule is delayed by two hours and some teens may feel like they’re suffering from insomnia until they adjust to the new schedule.
Although they may be going to sleep later, adolescents still need about nine hours of sleep each night. But they often have to wake up early for school, and just don’t have enough time to sleep if they go to bed later.
This shift is made more difficult when teens consume caffeine or nicotine, or stay up late on social media or doing homework. Often, teens attempt to catch up on weekday sleep by sleeping in late on the weekends. Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the situation by further throwing off their circadian rhythm, making it more difficult to get to bed and wake up on time during the week.
What Sleep Deprivation Does to Students
Reduced sleep is associated with poorer school performance. Extensive studies indicate a high prevalence of poor sleep quality and less than optimal amounts of sleep. Getting suboptimal amounts of sleep can affect how well students can learn, and may adversely affect performance at school.
When students have insufficient sleep that results in sleepiness, irritability, distractibility, and lack of motivation, they can suffer from impaired acquisition and retrieval of information. Insufficient sleep jeopardizes the memory formation process. However, adequate sleep can enhance the consolidation of memory and resistance to interference.
Struggling to sleep well and focus on schoolwork can lead to degradation in grades. Typically, students who are struggling or failing in school with C, D, or F grades report that they sleep about 25 minutes less and go to bed about 40 minutes later than students with A and B grades.
Additionally, students with worse grades have greater weekend sleep schedule delays than those with better grades. Overall, students who get less sleep during the week with a large weekend bedtime delay show increased daytime sleepiness, depressive mood, and sleep/wake behavior problems more than students who sleep longer than eight hours and 15 minutes during the week with less than an hour of weekend delay.
How Students Can Sleep Better
Adolescence can be a tough time for sleep as students adjust to a new sleep schedule, demands on their time, and changing bodies. But students who sleep well can perform well, so it’s important to focus on getting adequate sleep as much as possible.
- Schedule life around sleep. Students may have to wake up early for school, so it’s important to consider sleep needs (typically about nine hours each night) and count backwards from when it’s time to leave for school. Make sure family activities, homework, and other commitments are wrapped up well before it’s time to go to bed.
- Plan naps during the day. When there’s just not enough time between feeling sleepy and waking up for school, students can’t get the full amount of rest they need at night. Although naps aren’t an ideal solution, they can help bridge the gap and help students feel refreshed throughout the day. Students can plan short 20 minute naps in the late morning, lunchtime, or early afternoon. However, it’s a good idea to avoid naps longer than 30 minutes, or naps in the late afternoon or evening, as these can interfere with nighttime sleep.
- Rest in a healthy sleep environment. Where students sleep can influence the quality and quantity of their sleep. Students should choose an appropriate mattress and bedding, and make sure their room is dark, quiet, and cool. Avoid falling asleep with a laptop or mobile device in bed, as blue light emitted by electronic devices can increase alertness and make it difficult to doze off.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene means avoiding major sleep pitfalls. Consuming caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol can interfere with sleep, especially at night. Although exercise is generally helpful for sleep, it can leave teens feeling too alert if done late at night, so it’s best to avoid exercise in the hours just before sleep. Screen time can increase alertness and confuse the circadian rhythm, so it’s important to stop screen time at least an hour before bed.
- Maintain a sleep schedule and bedtime routine. Humans thrive on predictability, especially with sleep. With a regular sleep schedule, the body learns a regular bedtime and wake time, which makes it easier to stick to that schedule the more you keep it up. A regular bedtime routine works the same way, sending signals that it’s time to start feeling sleepy once you go through the activities of your bedtime routine each night. Your routine can be as simple as plugging in your phone, brushing your teeth, and reading a chapter of a book before turning the lights out.
About Sara Westgreen
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.
 “Sleep and Teens,” UCLA Health. http://sleepcenter.ucla.edu/sleep-and-teens.
Mary Carskadon, “Sleep’s effects on cognition and learning in adolescence,” Progress in Brain Research. 190:137-43. (2011).
 Howard Taras, William Potts-Datema, “Sleep and Student Performance at School,” Journal of School Health. Volume 75, Issue 7. (2009).
 Amy R. Wolfson, Mary A. Carskadon, “Sleep Schedules and Daytime Functioning in Adolescents,” Child Development. Volume 69, Issue 4. (2008).