The Sleep-Study Conundrum for Seniors
Recently, a teacher surveyed a class of year 12 students, “What is your biggest worry?” Their answer shocked her. The majority of them said their biggest problem was sleep deprivation.
“We’re not getting enough sleep.”
Many students, particularly older high achievers, are studying into the wee hours, giving up sleep and compromising their health. Their parents are perplexed. Mum wonders how they can have so much homework. Dad suspects they just waste too much time online. What’s really going on?
Today’s students undoubtedly have more pressure on them than their parents did; whether or not they have more work is debatable. A few things are contributing to the current trend.
The Allure of the All-Nighter
I'm wondering if it's become a 21st Century superstition: Stay up late, work yourself to a frazzle–or you'll fail!
Strange as it seems, pulling an all-nighter is for some a badge of honour. Puffy eyes and a glazed expression the next morning tell a story: here is a student who works really hard. When working late becomes the norm in social groups, students who do sleep risk looking like slackers. The well-rested one becomes a loner, a person whose energy doesn’t match the rest of the worn out tribe.
It’s a cultural thing, kind of like when adults respond to “How are you?” with “So busy!” or “I'm exhausted!” It normalises and condones busyness, as if the opposite means we are boring. If someone replied, “I’m so refreshed! Thanks for asking!” we’d think they were strange.
Is It Necessary to Stay Up So Late?
Definitely not every night. There may be a week or two in the term when deadlines converge and a late night is necessary to manage, but it should not be the norm nor even weekly. If it is, something else is probably going on. Something like:
- Poor planning or work habits
Help your son or daughter work out which problem is causing them to rely on late night study. Then they can learn specific strategies to cope better. The school counsellor can help with solutions.
What’s the Big Deal? They’re young…
The health risks associated with chronic sleep deprivation range from niggly little pains to all-out mental health issues. Diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are associated with poor sleep. It's serious business, this sleepytime stuff.
Aside from physical and mental health issues, sleep is critical for learning and performance. Scientists have used brain imaging technology to prove that learning is consolidated while people sleep. To use computing as a metaphor, during deep sleep, a day’s new skills and information are transferred from “working files” to the brain’s “hard drive”. This process frees up “space” for more learning the next day.
Looks like the old adage about “sleeping on it” is true when it comes to learning.
Learning in Your Sleep
This is important for everyone, but particularly so in year 12, when learning and performance take on a heightened level of importance. A student who hasn't slept or whose sleep has been poor is at a distinct disadvantage because his brain has to work harder to compensate for the lack of rest. In fact cramming all night is counterproductive; far better to get a good night’s sleep and approach an exam rested.
What Students Can Do
- Start early. Plan out the term and work out when the busy periods fall. Set weekly goals, and be accountable to someone.
- Schedule some downtime to relax and have fun. Nobody can sustain peak attention and performance indefinitely. Know your limits and work with them.
- Value sleep and protect it. Stop treating rest like it’s expendable—it’s not. Remember, while you’re sleeping, your brain is working for you, consolidating and committing. You cheat yourself out of this work when you don’t sleep.
- Set time frames. Parkinson ’s Law says, “Work expands to fit the time allowed.” If you sit down to study without a time frame, the work will expand far into the night until you’re too weary to go on. Make 10:30 your absolute limit. This helps you work smarter.
- Get the serious stuff completed first and save the formatting for very last. So many students waste time prettying things up as they go.
- Do everyone a favour: don’t brag about multiple all-nighters. It’s like bragging about using steroids or plagiarising. Badge of shame stuff. Let's change the culture around studying all night.
- Take care of your friends. Don’t distract or tempt them by texting, etc. all night. Leave them alone to get their work done early. Good friends don’t bother friends late at night.
What Parents Can Do to Guard Senior Students’ Sleep
- Insist on a decent bedtime. They need you to be tough. Their health and their learning are on the line.
- If they are frequently staying up too late, help them identify bad habits.
- Don’t hassle them. Make sure they know you’re concerned about their health first, their academic outcomes second.
- Remember that having a balance of work and relaxation is healthy. If they are taking a night off for the sake of balance, congratulate them. Better yet, fund it!
- Help them say “No” to outside, non-academic pressures. Peak times in year 12 may require temporarily pulling out of youth group, extra-curricular activities, and part-time work. Be the baddy for them.
- If media use is causing problems, get tough. If they need their devices, shut off access to the Wi-Fi. If they need the internet, they’ll learn to use it when it’s available. If it goes off at 11:00, guess what? They might go to bed.
- Model good sleep. A household that has a solid wake/sleep routine is an important framework.
Remember researchers say adolescents need 9.25 hours of sleep per night per night. Sweet dreams!
Want to know more about sleep?
- Watch a short video about the brain's part in learning during deep sleep.
- Read about sleep myths here and 10 health risks associated with poor sleep here.
- Here is Youth BeyondBlue's info sheet on sleep.