Although the introduction of vaccinations from Pfizer, Moderna, and other sources brought a huge sigh of relief to a world tired of pandemic-based restrictions, few people would disagree that we’re not out of the woods yet. That is doubly true at educational institutions, where there are many people gathering in a small space — a recipe for contagion.
Many school districts have responded by continuing to offer virtual learning, from pre-K up to grad school, although it’s too early to say how many parents will take advantage of this option for the fall semester.
Later start times may mean your children can sleep in a bit more if they’re attending virtual classes. But that doesn’t mean they’re sleeping better. “Coronasomnia” — the name scientists have coined for that vague feeling of unease that kept you awake at night during the pandemic — impacts kids, too. Worry about staying on top of coursework, fear of missing their friends, and increased screen time during the day all play a role in making it harder for you or your child to awake refreshed and ready for school.
What Does Sleep Mean For Student Success?
In fact, studies show that students at all grade levels, including college, have seen their sleep habits negatively impacted by COVID-19.
“Sleep directly affects a student’s performance with school,” says pediatric sleep consultant Jamie Caldwell, founder of Caldwell Sleep Consulting, LLC. “Lack of quality sleep can result in more mistakes, decreased situational awareness, slower response time, and difficulty with emotional processing.”
Studies show that up to a quarter of all children under the age of five have sleep problems, leading to everything from temper tantrums to obesity. Once they begin primary school, children need 9 to 12 hours of sleep a night, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). Less than that and they will have trouble concentrating, making decisions, and absorbing the information they are being asked to learn in school.
Teenagers, meanwhile, need 8 to 10 hours, says the AASM, in order to be healthy and do well in school. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they’re not getting it — by a long shot. Its study shows that 73% of high school students sleep less than they should, up from 69% in 2009.
Sleep problems are even worse at the university level. College students are notorious for pulling all-nighters and sleeping through morning classes. Is this stereotype true? Unfortunately, yes. One study cited by Harvard researchers indicated that only 11% of American college students sleep well — a factor that impacts their mental health as well as their ability to handle the stresses of college life while also paying attention to their studies.
How Does Virtual Learning Impact Sleep?
So if it’s true that sleep is important for students of all ages, why isn’t virtual learning a good idea? It means, after all, that children can sleep later, since classes generally start later in the virtual world, and they do not need to spend time traveling to a school building?
While that is true, it is counteracted by several negative factors related to virtual learning and sleep:
Blue light exposure: With virtual learning, your children are on their screens for most of the day. Add to that increased recreational screen time while they are not able to be with their friends. The blue light on their devices leads to increased sleep disorders, anxiety, and more.
Physical strain Sitting at a computer for hours at a time causes physical discomfort, says Craig Miller, cofounder of Academic Labs, LLC, including “strain on the eyes, back, and neck. Hence, their sleep is affected.”
Mental strain Virtual learning also causes mental stress, says Miller, as students don’t get to interact with their peers fully. “When people feel stressed, it’s harder to fall asleep,” he says.
Irregular schedule With school work happening at home, and especially with asynchronous classes, it’s easy to put it off until the last minute, leaving your student burning the midnight oil and disrupting their circadian rhythm, which tells them when to sleep.
Decreased work/life balance With no clear break between school time and home time, and no bus ride home to decompress, students lose their sense of balance, especially if they’re stuck in the house 24/7 with no playtime with their friends. This causes confusion and stress, which impacts sleep.
Improving Sleep While Learning Virtually
Despite the challenges, however, there are factors you can control when your children are learning from home that will allow them to get a good night’s sleep every night. All it requires is a little thoughtful preparation.
Check your media use well before bedtime
The National Sleep Foundation says you should turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before going to bed. That’s their recommendation for adults, though. We suggest that students should power down their computers and cell phones at least an hour before they head for bed to give themselves time to slow down, relax, and engage in comforting nighttime rituals.
Revamp your sleep space
If possible, virtual learning should happen in someplace other than the bedroom. Let the focus of the bedroom be solely on sleeping. Consider investing in some low-cost natural sleep aids, such as a natural oil diffuser filled with lavender essential oil. Make sure the student’s mattress, pillow, and blankets are comfortable and keep the room’s temperature on the lower side for comfort. Keep lights low, and go for lamplight rather than harsh overheads in the evening.
During the pandemic, many people equated “shelter at home” with “stay inside,” but the truth is that there are plenty of opportunities to get outside for structured activities or just a walk in the park, even if you’re socially distancing. And consider this: studies show that physical exercise can reset your circadian rhythm, negating the bad effects of disrupted sleep patterns.
Naps (in moderation) are fine
Once children reach a certain age, we teach them that naps aren’t necessary. It turns out this isn’t exactly true. A short power nap of 10 to 20 minutes can improve memory, decrease stress, improve your mood, and reduce fatigue. A short nap after classes can give your student a welcome boost, no matter what their age.
Recognize sleep deprivation red flags
Be aware of what sleep deprivation looks like, especially in teens, who often excel at hiding aspects of their lives from their parents. Common red flags include trouble waking up in the morning and sleeping late on weekends, bad skin and frequent illness, drops in academic performance, and mood swings. Setting boundaries on social media use and helping your teen establish good nighttime routines can encourage them to sleep better and awake refreshed.
Manage your diet
What you eat can have a powerful impact on your ability to sleep at night. You probably know to avoid caffeine too close to bedtime, but alcohol and some medications can also keep you awake or give you a fitful night’s sleep. Nicotine, too, is a stimulant that may inhibit sleep, so smokers should refrain from lighting up in the evening. Conversely, some foods can help you sleep better, from bananas to turkey.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Let’s say you’re in high school or college, and you pull an all-nighter to finish a paper. You might think that the best thing to do is head back to bed as soon as you hand in the paper, right? But you’d be better off doing your best to stay awake all day or taking a short power nap and then heading for bed a bit early. Why? Regular sleep habits maintain your internal clock — your circadian rhythm — and the more you stick to a consistent schedule, even on weekends, the better your sleep quality will be.
Tips For Parents and Teachers
Children are resilient, says Jamie Caldwell, the pediatric sleep consultant, and they should bounce back from the challenges of virtual learning with the right support. “During a time when stress is high, the future is uncertain, and children’s ability to overcome is constantly tested, parents should look for ways to take off some of this pressure,” she says. “Prioritizing sleep can boost a child’s physical and mental health.”
Caldwell offers several tips that may help. Flexibility, she says, is key. If a child is uncharacteristically fretful or sensitive, maybe “their tank is empty, and they need sleep.” Try a slightly earlier bedtime. Pay attention to your children’s behavior, noting their activities and behavior and adjusting bedtime accordingly.
“Think about it as one eye on the clock and one eye on the child to choose the right bedtime each night,” she says.
Educator Sarah Miller, founder of Homeschooling 4 Him, suggests you work with your child on time management and stay engaged as they tackle homework tasks in a timely manner. “Help your child divide larger projects into steps, and schedule time to work on the projects on their calendar so that they are not procrastinating with their schoolwork,” she says.
Zeth Pugh, of Pugh Education, believes that regular breaks allow students to excel at learning. “With students at home, we can control more of what they do between classes,” she says. “Try to get them up and to move as often as possible. Get their brains to forget about class for a moment. Do something that brings you joy. You’ll both go back to Zoom more refreshed and alert.”
Here’s The Punchline
Covid-19 has given us all a new normal to deal with, and few groups have seen the impact as much as students, from kindergarteners to post-docs. The rise of virtual learning has enabled students to continue their education as we quarantined at home — but at a cost, in the form of disturbed sleep. The good news? That cost can be paid by embracing good habits, maintaining a solid work-life balance, and setting up your bedroom to encourage a good night’s sleep. With just a little effort, you or your children will find it’s easy to learn virtually while rising in the morning with energy and the desire to make the day a great one.
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