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Sleep and Your Child's Performance in School

Sleep is essential to health and human performance, and nowhere is this more important than in young people who are going through their fundamental physical, emotional and intellectual development. Scientific research has clarified how "...inadequate sleep results in tiredness, difficulties with focused attention, low threshold to express negative affect (irritability and easy frustration), and difficulty modulating impulses and emotions. In some cases these symptoms may resemble attention deficit hyperactivity disorder."1 In an era where achievement is vital to everything from a child's basic emotional health and self esteem to their future career success, sleep problems are emerging as a major health and performance factor for children and young people worldwide.

Expert estimates of sleep problems in various age groups vary somewhat but all agree that sleep is a major and growing issue. One respected researcher stated in 2008 that, "more than more than 2/3 of all children having some kind of sleep problem,"2 and Australian researchers say almost 25% of six and seven year olds have trouble sleeping.3 Another respected expert with extensive experience in the school systems of the United States has stated that, "Physicians and psychologists estimate that as many as 30% of children may have a sleep disorder at some point during childhood."4

With all of the distractions, demands and tensions in young lives, with waves of "electronic noise" from Face Book, Twitter, the Internet, cell phones, video games, computers for study and entertainment and television bombarding our children, the age of instant communication even has some young people afraid to go to sleep because they are afraid they might miss something. Add these electronic distractions to a reduction in physical activity that is often a by-product of what I like to call "e-inactivity", sugar- and caffeine-rich diets, and all of the social pressures that accompany the developmental years, and it is easy to see why adequate healthy sleep is indeed a difficult place for many young people to reach.

The consequences of sleeping problems are widespread and often severe, impacting both behavior and performance in school. Leading researchers have identified series of negative consequences including the following:

  • "Poor sleepers" were significantly more likely to fail to meet requirements for their grade level;
  • Fatigue caused by poor sleep or lack of sufficient sleep time is a strong predictor of school failure;
  • Students with better grades report more total sleep on school nights than students with lower grades; sleep habits distinguished students making mostly C's or worse from those students making mostly A's and B's;
  • Sleep, more than eating habits, mood, stress, time management, and social supports, accounted for the largest variance in grade point averages among college students;
  • Students in high schools with earlier start times (7:40 a.m. compared to 8:30 a.m.) reported shorter school-night total sleep times, and more sleep problems, more daytime fatigue and sleepiness, more difficulties with concentration and attention, greater likelihood of using stimulants (like caffeine) to stay awake, and poorer school performance;
  • Insufficient sleep is associated with school tardiness, inability to concentrate, tendency to doze off during class, and lowered school motivation.5

In addition, researchers report that the sleep problems of children spill over to the parents who themselves have added sleep disturbance due to the unmet sleep needs and problems of their children. With so much at stake, parents will want to look carefully at the sleep habits of the entire family, assess the state of family sleep and, if necessary, develop a healthy sleep action plan.

Every sleep action plan starts with each family member's sleep environment. The mattress is the first place to start. Make sure that every sleep surface in the home is appropriate to the size and support needs of the person using it. This is easy to overlook in younger children since we often just assume they are adaptable and have fewer needs than adults in this regard. But considering the amount of time a child spends on their mattress -- by the age of two, most children have spent-more time asleep than awake6- you can see how important this matter is. The appropriate level of support is essential; medium firm is most likely best, but with an adequate comfort level with a welcoming surface. Size is also very important since we all move between 35 and 60 times each night and adequate room to comfortably move is essential. A growing child on a mattress too small to support their needs is a guarantee of sleep difficulties.

It is often tempting to relegate children to mattresses previously used by the adults in the household. There are plenty of reasons why this is a bad idea, starting with the wear that such used sleep surfaces have endured, and on to the accumulation of dust mites and other potentially harmful microorganisms. Simply put, old bedding seldom provides the support and comfort active, growing children need. A new, high quality mattress and foundation set is a sound investment in your child's proper growth and health.

Restful room colors and proper sleeping temperature are also important environmental factors. Sleep experts say that bright, vibrant colors may delay relaxation and sleep and relaxation. Comforting neutral colors, especially light pastels and muted tones such as taupes, grays, beiges, and whites, are more likely to help you relax and wind down into healthy sleep. Likewise, room temperature is an important component in healthy sleep. Too hot, it is hard to both fall and stay asleep. Too cold, the same thing happens. Because everyone's optimal sleep temperature is likely to be a little different, you will need to experiment to get it right for every family member. As well, breathable bed coverings that allow for optimal circulation of air will help the body go through the temperature changes that accompany everyone's sleep cycles without any disturbance.

Mattresses and other environmental conditions are the easy part. It is the behavioral changes that children must address that are likely to be most difficult. Starting with diet, the consumption of high sugar, caffeine containing and other sleep-inhibiting substances need to be carefully regulated both in terms of quantity and when they are consumed. One expert made the observation "you sleep what you eat" referring to this important role food plays on facilitating or inhibiting healthy sleep. Consult any of the readily available credible nutrition resources on the Internet or your healthcare professional for advice in this key area. Make sure your child has eaten properly and will not wake up hungry during the night.

Next, noise and darkness need to be addressed. For regular, healthy sleep on a predictable schedule, stimulation and emotions need to wind down which means that televisions, computers and cell phones need to not only be turned off but removed as a source of temptation to be turned on once the parents close the door. Setting a predictable schedule is essential, and you need to be prepared to defend your decision about bedtime against all complaints on the child's part, an inevitable issue that will intensify as children become older. School-aged children need somewhere between 9 and 12 hours of sleep at night but resistance to parental rules about sleep and social concerns and demands almost guarantee that children will push back very hard. Be prepared to deal with such resistance. .Also, bedtime should begin in a child's bed. Parents, especially busy parents with more than one child to care for can easily get in the habit of allowing a child or children to fall asleep in a chair, on a couch or on the floor. A routine that involves quiet, calming activities in which parents are regularly involved can help a lot.

Parents need to be tuned into a child's emotional needs and fears at bedtime, but not deterred from doing what needs to be done to get a child into a healthy sleep pattern. If your talking with your child reveals a serious problem or concern, work through it with them and do not be afraid to bring in your spouse, other family members or your health care professional if necessary. As always, if physical pain or some other abnormality (sleep apnea, restless-legs syndrome, night terrors, nightmares, or sleepwalking) is present, a visit to the doctor is in order. Staying with a child until they fall asleep creates a comfort threshold that is going to be Kard to sustain and will certainly delay sleep if you are not present for some reason. Reassure your child that you are just next door, that you will always make certain they are safe and well, but that it is time to sleep.

Parents must commit the time and the thoughtfulness it will certainly take to effectively address the sleep challenges and needs of children or all ages. It is, however, one of the best investments you can make in your children's future and good health. Preventing problems in school and elsewhere that are sleep-related is so much easier and much more responsible than trying to solve them once they surface. Every measure of performance and behavior indicates that healthy sleep is essential to the kind of emotional and intellectual development and physical growth we all want for our children and, it is attainable for all families.


  1. Ronald E. Dahl, "The impact of inadequate sleep on children's daytime cognitive function, "Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, Pages 44-50, March 1996. 
  2. Breus, Michael J, PhD, MD, "Back to School, Back to Sleep: Fixing your children's sleep problems may improve their grades and their behavior,"   www.WebMD.com.
  3. Quach, Jon, BSc, Hiscock, Harriet, MD, Canterford, Louise, GDipSci(Stats), Wake, Melissa, MD 'Outcomes of Child Sleep Problems Over the School-Transition Period: Australian Population Longitudinal Study," PEDIATRICS Vol. 123 No. 5 May 2009, pp. 1287-1292 (doi:10.1542/peds.2008-1860.
  4. Dawson, Peg, EdD, NCSP, "Sleep and Sleep Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Information for Parents andEducators", National Association of School Psychologists, Bethesda, MD, USA, 2004.
  5. Wolfson, Amy R. and Carskadon, Mary A, "Understanding adolescents sleep patterns and school performance: acritical appraisal," Sleep Medicine Review, 2003; 7 (6):491-50.
  6. "Children and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation, http://www.sleepfoundation.org

The International Chiropractors Association is presently engaged in a comprehensive review of sleep research with the aim of making those findings available to chiropractic practitioners worldwide. We also believe that this review of the current state of sleep research will point to areas where additional study is needed and, in cooperation with our affiliated educational institutions and with the support of our sleep products partner King Koil Indonesia, we hope to help fill such gaps in the understanding of healthy sleep. For more information contact International Chiropractors Association at [email protected], 01-703-528-5000 or contact King Koil Indonesia.


Sleep Facts