4 Ways Lack of Sleep Affects How Kids Learn

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Lack of sleep can make it harder for kids to learn.

  • It’s harder for kids to focus when they’re tired.

  • Sleep-deprived kids can be moody or have trouble with self-control.

Sleep problems are common in kids. That’s especially true for kids who have trouble settling down or paying attention. Not getting enough sleep can affect how well kids do in school. Here are four ways lack of sleep can put up roadblocks to learning.

1. Limits Planning and Organization Skills

Not getting enough sleep affects how kids think. It can temporarily weaken the part of the brain that manages organization, planning, and problem solving. For example, tired kids might lose track of school supplies. So instead of doing schoolwork, they spend too much time looking for stuff. Or they might have a harder time prioritizing homework and pacing themselves during tests.

2. Worsens Mood and Behavior

Kids can get moody or silly when they’re tired. They may have less self-control than they usually do. And they might get frustrated or lose their temper more easily. Having a shorter fuse may cause them to give up on homework or tests. And if they lose their temper, they might end up in the principal’s office instead of the classroom.

3. Reduces Focus and Attention

Studies show that when people are sleep-deprived, their brain waves lapse into brief sleep-like patterns while they’re awake. That helps explain why exhausted students seem to “space out” in class. Kids who don’t get enough sleep can be easily distracted. They might make careless errors. And they can have trouble concentrating on schoolwork and on what the teacher is saying.

4. Hampers Memory

Lack of sleep can have a negative effect on memory. It’s harder for a sleep-deprived brain to focus, so it’s harder for it to remember new things. Poor sleep can also make it harder to form and remember long-term memories. Kids who are tired may work more slowly because it’s tough for them to remember what they just heard or read. If they’re learning new material, they may forget it by the next day.

Find out how much sleep kids need. Find out how to get your younger or older child on a sleep schedule. And read about the connection between ADHD and sleep.

Key Takeaways

  • Not getting enough sleep can affect how the brain works.

  • Tired kids have a harder time remembering new things.

  • Getting more sleep can make it easier for your child to learn.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH 

is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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