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Why Teens Learn Better With More Sleep

by Beth Greenwood

It’s a cartoon classic -- parents trying everything from a water cannon to a set of drums to wake up a teenager sleeping in on a weekend. Teens do have different sleep patterns, however, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), that conflict with the rest of the world’s daily schedule. As a result, many teens are sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation affects learning, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Adolescent Sleep Patterns

During adolescence, hormonal changes in the teen body cause the internal clock, or circadian rhythm, to shift forward. The shift, which is a normal developmental phase, makes it difficult for teens to fall asleep until 11 p.m. or even later. Since the NSF notes that teens should get at least 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep every night, in a perfect world they would sleep until after 8 a.m. Most schools, however, start earlier than that, so teens tend to skimp on sleep during the week and may try to catch up by sleeping in on weekends. By the end of the week, teens are often at least 10 hours short on sleep, according to a study conducted by researchers at National Jewish Health in Denver, as reported in "The Washington Post."

Sleep and Memory

A good night’s sleep is crucial for learning and memory, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Sleep-deprived teens can’t focus on what they’re trying to learn, so they don’t learn efficiently and have trouble receiving information. In addition, sleep actually consolidates memories, which are necessary to learn new information. Consolidation is the process by which a memory becomes stable, so the brain is able to recall the information. Memories can be visual, auditory or performance-based.

Different Kinds of Sleep

Different kinds of sleep are involved in memory acquisition, storage and processing. Rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep seems to be important in helping people retain fact-based information, such as the capitals of the states or mathematical equations, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Slow wave sleep, also called deep, restorative sleep, helps to consolidate newly acquired information. Sleep affects the ability to learn tasks related to coordination and performance, such as a new way to kick a soccer ball or how to drive a car. Sleep also affects procedural memory, or “how” to do something.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation affects a person’s ability to think, according to an October 2007 article in “Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.” A teen who is sleep-deprived is less alert and has more difficulty paying attention, especially with long, monotonous tasks. A sleep-deprived teen might also have difficulty with tasks that require both speed and accuracy, such as a timed mathematics test. The structures in the brain are actually affected by sleep deprivation, especially the area called the prefrontal cortex, which regulates decision-making, language and creative thinking.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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