Student sleep problems aren't just about individual behavior

Coinciding with the beginning of the US school year, researchers at UCLA published a study last week showing a correlation between lack of sleep and poor academic performance. Some 500 high schoolers kept two-week diaries of their sleep habits, how well they understood and participated in classroom work, and their scores on assignments and tests. The ones who slept less did less well in school.

The headlines on this study—like the one at, where I first saw it—tout the results as evidence that you shouldn't stay up late cramming. But cramming usually is a special-occasion thing—something you do the night before a test—not a daily occurrence. This study is really about chronic sleep deprivation, habits and behaviors that happen over weeks and months. Along with several other studies that have come out in recent years, it helps build a persuasive case not against occasional cram sessions, but against academic routines that all-but require students to operate constantly on an abnormal sleep cycle.

For instance, military education—where students carry both heavy physical and mental loads—is highly regimented with a certain number of hours being alloted for sleep. In 2008, researchers from the Air Force Academy and the Naval Post Graduate School published results of a study that showed recruits who operated on a schedule that allowed for 6 hours of sleep did worse academically than peers who were given 8 hours. In fact, the recruits who got 8-hours of sleep scored an average of 11 percent higher on tests.

Another study, this one from 2011, found that sleep deprivation and sleep quality affected academic performance, independent of whether people were "good students" or "bad students" and independent of their personal lifestyle choices, like whether they partied a lot or not.

That doesn't mean partying isn't a factor at all. There have been a couple of studies that found correlations between alcohol consumption and not getting enough sleep. But the 2011 study suggests that lack of sleep isn't just a issue for wild and crazy drinkers and they aren't the only ones who suffer academically because of it.

Taken together, the evidence we have on the connection between sleep and academic performance suggests that the problem isn't merely an issue of student behavior, and the solution probably shouldn't be confined to lecturing kids on how they ought to be getting a full 8 hours of rest. It's also a systemic problem with the way we do education. Consider when high school starts, for instance. Studies in Minnesota (and elsewhere) have shown that simply shifting first period from 7:20 to 8:30 makes a difference not only in attendance, but also in how well students do once they get to school.

Read more on the Minnesota school time start studies

Psychology Today on delaying the start of the school day

Image: Sleeping in Class, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from yuvi's photostream


  1. So why don’t we fix this? I have a theory about this.

    About a decade ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles about the similar effect that lack of sleep was having on worker productivity. They weren’t recommending any changes in workplace policy, the tone was more about hectoring workers to go to bed earlier. So they really did not expect the pushback that they got. An ad-hoc committee of CEOs bought a full-page ad, paid for out of their own pockets, to attack the idea that people need 8 hours of sleep a night. Every single one of them was getting by on 4 hours of sleep a night or less, and they were the most productive people on the planet. They insisted, collectively, that anybody who claims to “need” to sleep 8 hours a night is just a lazy slacker, that those people will never achieve anything in life, and that it was disappointing that the official newspaper of capitalism was encouraging people to be lazy slackers.

    Around the same time that I was reading that, I was reading articles about hypomanic disorder. Hypomanics aren’t completely out of control, but they do have some impulse control problems and serious difficulty predicting the negative consequences of any actions that they’re contemplating, leading to disastrous overconfidence. They also tend to be gregarious, and high energy to the point of being fidgety, and, statistically, they also tend to sleep only 2 to 4 hours a day.

    It occurred to me that this many not be a coincidence. Modern post-industrial capitalism rewards the living heck out of people with hypomanic disorder. Ever since then I’ve been making references to Procrustes’ prescription pad: our society knows which is the perfect mental state, and if you’re not in that mental state, we chemically stretch or saw off parts of your neurochemistry until you fit into it. The direction of 21st century life is to reserve all of the rewards of work, thrift, and investment for people for people with one particular form of mental illness, hypomanic disorder. But we claim that this isn’t cruel, because we’re also working on drugs to induce that disorder in otherwise healthy people.

    1. Hypomanics also tend to have a much shorter lifespan.  Sleep is when the body repairs the damage done to it during the day. So let the Hare laugh at the Tortoise, we all know how that one ended. People who tend to sleep longer tend to live longer.

  2. Simple comment on military training, part of the point is teaching people to operate with a complete lack of sleep.

    1. Teach you to minimally function without sleep.  Not optimally function.  I have a buddy who was a Delta Operator.  I am going to have to ask him what their policy was on sleep deprivation when they could be called to rescue a high-value hostage at a moments notice.  I bet they realized it was stupid.  SF is always way ahead of the Big Army when it comes to forward thinking.

      1. Yes, and it depends on the group, Seals, complete the mission on no sleep, exhausted, Green Berets, high level functioning while merely kinda tired.

        1. I will ask Kyle Defoor about it when I see him in November(Google his name).  Sleep Deprivation in training is on thing.  During ops is something else.  I bet you when ST-6 hit the Bin Laden compound, everyone was very well rested.

  3. What a surprise. It’s just like those studies of oxygen deprived students who do much more poorly than those who can actually get to breathe.

  4. Okay, I’m coming at this from a UK perspective, and I can say that for me, the most surprising thing in the whole study was this:

    “With classes in most high schools in the United States starting at around 7:15 a.m”

    Quarter past seven in the morning?! That’s supposedly normal? My high school started at 8:30AM, and ours was the one in the area with the early starts. I know there are all sorts of cultural differences between the two sides of the Atlantic, but this is one that completely baffles me. What’s a normal school schedule in the US? With those starts, when do you get home?

    1. The public schools I attended started at 7:15 am and got out at 1:45 pm.  I also taught five years later at a school about 40 minutes away from that one that started at 8 am and ended at 2:30 pm; however, that was a temporary arrangement due to construction.  Before I started teaching there it was 7:30 am/2:00 pm.  But schools in the USA are mostly locally administered so this isn’t necessarily representative.

    2. The school hours are staggered so that one set of buses can pick up students for grammar, middle and high school (or whatever division.)  The order generally goes from oldest to youngest.  In winter, when I was a lad, the sun rose during the second period of the day.

      1. This!  When I was a child the Minneapolis district operated it’s busses by neighborhood, picking all the kids in a very small area up, and dropping them at a handful of different schools in the area which all started at the same time.  As I got older the district realized it could save millions, yes, really, millions of dollars on bussing costs by staggering start times.  My high school started at 7:10.  If you took a zero hour, which I often did, you had to be there at 6:00 am.  It’s madness.  The elementary school at the end of my block starts at 7:00 am.  By the way, ask me how safe I felt standing at my bus stop on Franklin Ave. at 6:45 in the pitch darkness as a 13 year old Freshman. 

    3. My daughter’s High School in a suburb north of Seattle started 1st class at 7:10- that’s if you didn’t take an early class at 6:20.  She had to catch a bus at 6:30 to get there. That meant ready and out the door by 6:15. I asked about the rationale for sending adolescents to school at a time when they would stumble through half the day before actually achieving consciousness, then be on their own and unsupervised from, say 1:45 till 6:00 or whenever parents get home. I pointed out volumes of research showing that adolescents operate on a delayed sleep cycle, and don’t work effectively early.  I was repeatedly given several reasons:

      A) It has to do with transportation- busses need to be used to pick up elementary, middle, and high school kids, and we don’t want the younger kids out on the streets when it’s still dark in the winter. This struck me as absurd because 1) elementary kids wake up early anyway; 2) younger kids are much more likely to have a parent at home, not already off to work, and them getting home early is less of an issue; 3)at least where I live, some parent or older sibling always walked the youngest kids to the bus.

      B) There needs to be time after school for the football/ basketball/ other sports team to practice. And why cant’t they practice BEFORE school, the way the swim team did?  And why should the entire student body’s education be harmed for the convenience of a minority on the sports teams? 

      C)  High School students need more time after school so they can work.   Never mind that most don’t, and many of those that do have jobs work a later shit that keeps them from sleeping when they would need to, considering their need to be up every morning at oh-dark-thirty. 

      The common thread to all these rationales is that they have nothing whatever to do with education.

      1.  UGH the sports argument is the worst. This was how my high school treated it. I had chemistry at 7:30am. One day I could not even identify boiling water. It’s a mircale I didn’t accidentally drink hydrochloric acid and die.

  5. It’s true. Aren’t there also studies out there that point out that teenagers have later-skewing sleep schedules?
    My high school starts at 7:45 and goes to 2:20 (25min lunch period, 7min passing periods). I have a late-start schedule where I go in at 9:52 and I’m doing 10x better in school–and it’s not just because it helps ease my depression.

  6.  Not sure if I buy this sleep deprive stuff.
    Students in Korea, Japan, etc. are sleep deprived too, yet they kick butt compared to US students.  Maybe they are spending their long hours on academics while too many US kids spend theirs partying, watching TV, surfing the web, etc.

    1. Asian kids do better because they’re smarter (and because they’re smarter they understand the long term value of working harder.)

    2. They also commit suicide in high numbers becaues they’re driven so hard by family and society, not sure you want to swing the pendulum that far.

  7. Austin ISD was reversed– Elementary started at 7:45, Middle School at 8:15, High School at 9:00. Worked pretty well for us– but even so, as soon as I went to college everyone was dead until 11 am! Couldn’t imagine how terrible it would be trying to teach teenagers so early in the morning.

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