We already know that early school start times are making it difficult for our children to learn and could even be harming their health. Although delaying school start times has been found to help, we may want to focus our efforts on sleep-education programs instead.
The effects of childhood sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation is relatively widespread among teenagers; one study found that as many as half of all adolescents were getting insufficient sleep on school nights. We should be concerned by this since childhood sleep deprivation is linked to a number of negative effects including mental disorders, obesity, and illness.
Since schools are such a good environment for influencing childhood behavior, it makes sense that they should offer sleep-education programs alongside interventions to treat and prevent other health issues such as obesity, alcohol, and tobacco use.
Can school-based sleep education help?
In 2017, a review published in The Journal of School Health examined the effectiveness and current status of school-based sleep education programs. Researchers looked for school-based interventions that were based on sleep education and/or cognitive and behavioral techniques and aimed to improve sleep duration among students between 10 and 19 years of age.
Seven published studies were reviewed. Four of the studies were conducted in Australia, one in Brazil, one in New Zealand, and one in Hong Kong. A total of 1,876 students received a sleep-education program while 2,483 attended classes as usual.
The most common format was four weekly sessions that lasted 50 minutes each. Classes typically covered sleep knowledge, weekend sleep behavior, and sleep hygiene.
The benefits of school-based sleep education
Researchers found that compared to classes-as-usual, students who attended sleep-education classes enjoyed better mood and significantly more sleep on both weekdays and weekends immediately after classes concluded.
Are the effects short-lived?
Unfortunately, researchers found the positive effects did not last long.
When looking at follow-up data (follow-up periods ranged from six weeks to one year), researchers found no significant difference between students who took the classes and those who did not when measuring sleep duration, time taken to fall asleep on weeknights, or sleep knowledge. Two of the studies found no difference in sleep hygiene practices at follow-up, either.
How can sleep education classes be improved?
The authors of the review suggested that the content and duration of the programs, and the involvement or lack of involvement of parents may influence a program’s effectiveness. In particular, the family environment can have a strong influence on sleep habits, physical activity, and computer use; if parents exhibit poor sleep and low physical activity, their children are likely to do so, too. It’s important, therefore, to involve both parents and students when trying to make effective, long-term positive changes to sleep.
Researchers also argued that sleep-education classes need to adequately motivate students if they are to have any long-term impact. Research published in 2013 suggested that sleep education that involved motivational interviewing may be more effective. Motivational interviewing takes an individual approach and is grounded on principles that express empathy, encourage autonomy, accept resistance, and help identify how bad behaviors affect life goals and values.
Should schools teach children about sleep?
Although the authors of the review suggested that sleep-education classes must pay attention to motivational issues if they are to have a long-term impact, taking an individualized approach may not be possible given the limited resources available to public schools.
That being said, positive effects were still seen in the short-term when utilizing more typical, group-based sleep-education programs in the school environment. To sustain these effects over longer periods, involving parents (and having the support of parents) may prove crucial.