Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sleep, Emotions, & Learning

Researchers from UCA-Berkeley and Harvard recently quantified what teachers have known for years. A lack of sleep increases emotional reactions and can negatively impact learning. Sleep-deprived individuals showed a whopping 60% activity increase in brain regions associated with emotional response.

Though some brain functioning follows the anticipated route of becoming less active with tiredness, the emotional centers ramp up, including those associated serious disorders such as depression. Sleep-deprived subjects suffered a decrease in prefrontal activity—neurological processes critical for emotional control and learning.

What does this mean for educators? And how should we make use of such findings?

First, though the study’s subjects suffered significant sleep deprivation (no sleep for 35 hours), smaller losses of sleep likely impact the same neurological regions and functions. Students who get less than their needed amount of sleep have an increased likelihood of overemotional responses. For example, a student who normally enjoys joking with a teacher may respond negatively when the teacher initiates such an interaction, indicating that sleep deprivation may be playing a role. Such days require additional patience and grace on the teacher’s part, recognizing that with a good night’s sleep, the student will likely be back to normal the next day.

Second, teachers need to monitor their own sleep and avoid sleep deprivation as much as possible. Teaching is stressful, and increased emotional responses from a sleep-deprived teacher can negatively influence student learning.

Finally, educators need to be proactive in sharing the results and implications of this research with parents and school/community leaders. Last spring, I spoke with a parent whose third-grade child played little league baseball. It was play-off time, and the parent was lamenting the crazy schedule her child would need to keep in order to participate. Some of the play-off games had start times as late as 8:30 PM on school nights! Her child would BEGIN to play baseball at what normally was his bedtime! Such scheduling, even if only for a couple of weeks, will impact the child’s sleep and, consequently, the child’s learning. By communicating such research findings, we can help parents and community organizations help us optimize student learning.

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