Lack of Sleep Linked to Poorer Academic Performance, Behavior

Last Updated: May 05, 2009

This article appeared in the April 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Rural students with long commutes face a number of documented barriers to school success. The commute  — and the long distance between home and school that necessitate the long commute  — makes participation in co-curricular activities all but impossible for most students. Parents can’t participate extensively in the school because it is too far away to be accessible. Students spend so much time on the bus they don’t have time for the homework requirements of challenging courses. And family time is disrupted.
All these factors put rural students at significant disadvantage, especially if their families struggle economically or depend exclusively on the bus for school-related transportation.
Long bus rides are generally the result of students being forced to attend a school that is located far from their homes. Long commutes are almost inevitable when rural schools are consolidated. Ride times of three, four, even five hours are relatively common for rural students in some states. Further, the disadvantages of long commutes are compounded by large school size, as is often the case when schools are combined.
Rural students who have a long ride to school face yet another disadvantage that is becoming increasingly well understood: sleep deprivation.
Children and adolescents who get insufficient amounts of sleep, or whose sleep is disrupted, are much more likely to have difficulties in school than students who get enough sleep. Even a difference of 15–30 minutes of sleep a night can distinguish between students making mostly A’s and B’s and students making mostly C’s or worse.
Adolescents need about nine hours of sleep a night. They also have natural sleep rhythms that cause them to fall asleep  — and wake up  — later than children or adults.
The Case for Sufficient Sleep
A literature review by Amy R. Wolfson and Mary A. Carskadon, “Understanding adolescents’ sleep patterns and school performance: a critical appraisal,” ( published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, found published evidence suggesting that sleep disorders and insufficient sleep are linked to a number of negative outcomes for older children and adolescents. Some of the findings of studies in the review include: 
  • “Poor sleepers” were significantly more likely to fail to meet requirements for their grade level;
  • Fatigue caused by poor sleep or lack of sufficient sleep time is as strong a predictor of school failure as low parental educational level;
  • Students with better grades report more total sleep on school nights than students with lower grades; sleep habits distinguished students making mostly C’s or worse from students making mostly A’s and B’s
  • Sleep, more than eating habits, mood, stress, time management, and social supports, accounted for the largest variance in grade point averages among college students;
  • Students in high schools with earlier start times (7:40 compared to 8:30) reported shorter school night total sleep times and more sleep problems, more daytime fatigue and sleepiness, more difficulties with concentration and attention, greater likelihood of using stimulants (like caffeine) to stay awake, and poorer school performance;
  • Insufficient sleep is associated with school tardiness, inability to concentrate, tendency to doze off during class, and lowered school motivation.
The authors caution that cause-and-effect is not established by the studies and that the various studies use many different measures of school performance, including self-reported grades that may not be accurate. Nevertheless, a variety of studies, conducted around the world and using a number of research methodologies, found strong correlations between getting enough sleep and improved academic performance and behavior, and this consistency makes a compelling case.
A Policy Response
Some school districts are using research on the sleep needs of adolescents to shift school schedules to start later in the day.
That can be a good solution for students who live relatively close to school. An 8:30 start time, rather than a 7:45 start time means a 10th grader will likely sleep an extra four hours during the school week.
But simply delaying start times won’t necessarily provide a lot of help for rural students. If a student boards a bus at 6:00 in the morning for a standard 8:00 to 3:00 school day, she won’t likely get home until about 5:00 in the afternoon. Working backwards, she will need to be asleep by 8:00 p.m. to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the bus. Assuming an 8:00 bedtime were a realistic expectation for a teenager, this same student would only have about three hours between her arrival home from school in the afternoon and when she needs to be asleep. Enough time for dinner, a few chores, and little else.
While this student is wasting four hours a day on a bus, some of her classmates are able to use that time for advanced class work, sports teams and activities, and, yes, sleep. That’s a significant school, college, and ultimately life disadvantage for the student with the long commute.
Changing the school start time won’t create more evening free time for this rural student, nor will it provide significant relief on the morning wake-up time. But keeping the school close by will.
Some rural education activists are using sleep research to help make the case for keeping small schools in rural communities.
State officials and local school boards interested in improving student achievement and keeping students in school would serve themselves as well as rural students well by paying attention to this significant medical and educational evidence.
Wolfson, Amy R. , and Mary A. Carskadon. "Understanding adolescents' sleep patterns and school performance: a critical appraisal," Sleep Medicine Reviews 7, 6 (2003): 491-506.

Read more from the April 2009
Rural Policy Matters.