Positive habits for good learning, sleep patterns, nutrition and use of digital devices in the home

At first thought these topics might not seem closely related but a holistic approach is needed in allowing your children, our students the best possible environment for success.

While 95% of brain development has occurred by five years of age, the prefrontal cortex, the “rational thinking” part of the brain continues to develop through the adolescent years and is not fully developed until the early adult years (early 20s).

Neural connections critical to intelligence, self-awareness and performance, grow with the stimulation of school and social interactions. These are then hard-wired in the adolescent brain during the latter stages of REM sleep.

For children, adolescents and young adults to be efficient in their learning they require a good night’s sleep. If the sleep cycle is cut short, their learning performance suffers the next day.

Unfortunately, the good work of students and teachers during the day can be undone through poor sleep patterns. Teachers work hard on explaining new material, students pay close attention during the day to these new tasks and then the learning is negated through deprivation of REM sleep. The learning is not embedded and much of the work is lost, and test scores and grades will drop.

Sleep deprivation also effects mood and can lead to mental health issues, irritability and apathy. Ten or more hours of sleep is recommended for children and around eight to ten hours of sleep is recommended for teenagers. Students regularly in bed by 10:00 pm show less depression and better coping mechanisms.

Thus it is best to avoid the use of digital media late in the evening. The light emitted from the screens of electronic media such as computers, mobile phones and TV can interfere with sleep by suppressing melatonin and thus keeping the brain alert at times of the day when it should be settling towards sleep.

As each evening progresses, step the use of digital media down from interactive to observational or passive, that is moving from interacting with electronic media such as game playing, chat sessions, posting on social media to more passive uses such as TV, music, or a book. This assists the brain to begin to settle towards sleep and establish regular routines.

A teenager’s circadian rhythm is different to that of a child or an adult, due to their hormonal development. They like to stay up later and are alert later in the evening and then like to sleep in longer in the morning. This is a natural part of their development but unfortunately the world does not accommodate these habits particularly well. Thus regular habits need to be developed and adhered to as much as possible. This may entail the need for an alarm each morning. Maintain regular routines but avoid using a phone as an alarm. There are many other devices that can replace the phone as an alarm.

Digital media should not be in bedrooms overnight. All phones, laptops and computers should be out of temptation’s way. A good habit is for all mobile phones, belonging to adults and children, to be charging overnight at the same public place in the home. Thus a quick scan can elicit whether all are present.

If possible, the completion of homework and other study each evening should not be conducted in a bedroom but in a quiet but public part of the household. This means that subtle supervision can be maintained to ensure time on task is maintained by older students and that help is close by, especially for younger students. The added bonus of conducting homework out of bedrooms is that the bedroom is then a place of rest and relaxation, a place associated with sleep, rather than schoolwork. This is especially useful for students who have trouble settling to sleep each evening.

Good sleep and nutrition are also linked. Students who are tired are likely to eat more. When tired the temptation to eat foods high in sugar or other carbohydrates is high and this raises blood sugar levels. Higher blood sugar levels are closely related to poor sleep. While younger students should not be drinking alcohol, it is important to remember that alcohol may aid sleep onset, but interferes with deep REM sleep and thus inhibits the embedding of learning. It is prudent to avoid, or at least minimise the consumption of caffeine past lunchtime. Caffeine is a stimulant and can interfere with sleep. Use sports drinks cautiously as they often contain both caffeine and quite high levels of sugar.

A good healthy diet positively influences good learning. Poor diet results in loss of important vitamins & minerals necessary for strong immune system, good memory, physical and mental health. Low iron levels create fatigue and poor concentration and thus study takes longer and is less effective. Remember, iron is needed to deliver oxygen to the tissues of the body including the brain. The more oxygen in the brain the easier it is to learn.

Thus exercise is also important to ensure good learning. Recent research by Dr Richard Telford makes clear the link between improving physical fitness and improving NAPLAN results in primary school-age children. Physical exercise reduces stress hormones in the body and boosts Serotonin which to help keep us calm. Exercise boosts brain power by providing additional oxygen and nutrients to the brain through improved cardio-vascular systems. The fitter you are, the faster your brain waves fire for quick thinking.

In conclusion, it is important as parents and teachers to take a broad view of the development of a child, through adolescence into adulthood. So many of the factors mentioned above are linked to each other and need to be addressed both singularly and holistically for best effect.

Telford, R. D. et al. 2012. Physical Education, Obesity, and Academic Achievement: A 2-Year Longitudinal Investigation of Australian Elementary School Children. American Journal of Public Health. February, Vol 102, No. 2