(PT@CC) Psychology
   Teachers at Community

Sleep Deprivation
Bryan F. Read
St. Paul's School for Girls
Brooklandville, Maryland

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation negatively affects short-term memory, as well as physical and emotional health. Teachers and parents must be made aware of the effects of long-term sleep deprivation on students in elementary, middle and high schools. Several programs can inform teachers and administrators of ways to address the problem of sleep deprivation through changes in school schedules, teaching strategies and student involvement. An experiment conducted on fourth graders across the country will examine the link between sleep deprivation, motivation and short-term memory performance. Hypothetically, motivation may offset the effects of sleep deprivation and thus be seen as a moderating factor in school achievement.

Part I. Summary of Research in the Field of Sleep Deprivation

Several major studies have contributed to current understanding about adolescent sleep deprivation. A great amount of this research has focused on the biological changes that occur in young people with regard to patterns of sleep. Studies have shown that although adolescents still require the nine hours of sleep that they did as young children, their biological clocks shift at puberty towards a later bedtime and thus a later waking (Carskadon 1997, 1999, 2000; Hunter 2000). Sleep-inducing melatonin is affected by the changed circadian rhythms, which makes it difficult for adolescents to fall asleep at a regular bedtime. However, societal demands on teenagers do not generally allow them to get a full night's sleep: early school starting times, homework and extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and television and computers have made healthy sleep patterns nearly impossible to achieve (Black 2000; Dahl 1999).

Much of the research focuses on the effects of sleep deprivation on the adolescent. Studies by Polzella (1975), Harrison and Horne (2000) and Blissitt (2001) conclude that lack of sleep directly affects temporal memory. Information is not properly encoded for retrieval if adolescents have not had enough sleep, and these lapses in short-term memory occur more frequently under conditions of greater sleep deprivation. Students who are sleep-deprived when they are trying to master material in the classroom cannot do so as successfully because their cognitive abilities are limited. Thus, when they are trying to retrieve the material covered in class, they cannot do so since it was never stored in the first place. Maier (2001) and Kuo (2001) examine the behavioral effects of lack of sleep and determine that excessive loss of sleep is extremely detrimental to one's health. Affected are motor and cognitive skills, eye-hand coordination, accuracy, alertness and concentration. Some studies reveal that a severely sleep-deprived teenager operates at the same motor capacity as someone with a blood alcohol concentration of .10, legally intoxicated. The emotional health of adolescents is also influenced by a loss of sleep. Maas (2000), Carskadon (2000) and Dahl (1997) note that anxiety, irritability, attention difficulties, and depression increase among sleep-deprived teens; motivation, a sense of humor, and socialization skills often decrease.

Part II. Instructional Program for Teachers, Administrators and Parents

Teachers, administrators and parents need to be more informed of the effects of sleep deprivation in order to help students succeed in the classroom. A three-part approach that will target the specific responsibilities of each of these groups is designed to address the major issues of sleep deprivation in adolescents. These issues include changes in adolescent sleep patterns that may affect behavior; homework and its relationship to sleep deprivation; student ability to learn and time of day; school schedules and sleep patterns; and methods for counteracting sleepiness in the classroom.

Teachers will spend a morning session in an inservice workshop scheduled in August before school opens learning how they can make changes in their teaching methods in order to facilitate a better learning environment. The first hour of the workshop will present the material covered in Part I: what sleep deprivation is; how it specifically pertains to adolescents' emotional and physical health; and how it affects student performance in the classroom. After this presentation, teachers will break into small groups that will address the following topics:
  • How much sleep are your students getting? A method for assessing sleep patterns
    This workshop will enable teachers to construct a "Student Sleep Log" which will be given to parents to fill out for their children. The information gathered will include:
    • What time to do you get up and go to bed each day?
    • During what hours do you complete your homework?
    • What after-school activities are you involved in? For how much time?
    • What other activities occupy your time each evening?

  • How much homework is enough?
    This workshop will focus on the amount and quality of homework assigned each day. Theoretically, middle-school and high-school students, who need 9 hours of sleep each night, should be given no more than one half-hour of work per subject a night. This should equal no more than two and a half hours of homework a night.

  • When do students test the best? Assessing student performance during various times of day
    Since most of the research indicates that students perform with more success at different times of the day, teachers will learn to track grades alongside the time of each test or in-class graded assignment.

  • The horrors of the first-period class: Getting students to wake up and pay attention
    Many teachers indicate that the first-period class is the most difficult one in which to get students focused. This workshop will help teachers develop innovative methods to involve students actively in learning and thus encourage them to participate in the first-period lesson.

  • Behaviors of the sleep-deprived teen: recognizing the problem before it escalates
    Although moodiness and teenagers often go hand in hand, teachers can learn to distinguish the symptoms of sleep deprivation, including depression, anxiety, loss of a sense of humor and lack of concentration.

  • Are You Sleep-Deprived? How to talk to teenagers about the need for sleep
    Teachers will learn to determine if their students are sleep deprived. This workshop will focus on James Maas' five-point survey (2000) that asks:
    • Does a heavy meal, warm room, boring meeting or lecture ever make you drowsy?
    • Do you fall asleep instantly at night?
    • Do you need an alarm clock to wake up?
    • Do you repeatedly hit the snooze button?
    • Do you sleep extra hours on weekends?

    At the same time, administrators will conduct separate workshops that address concerns about the school schedule. Their sessions will include the following topics:

  • How early is too early? An examination of school starting times
    Most middle and high schools have faced earlier starting times during the last decade, and it is time for administrators to begin to study the necessity of starting school before 9 a.m. This would mean schedule adjustments and perhaps an extension in dismissal times, but all of the research indicates that if student success is the goal, very early classes are counter-productive.

  • The value of a rotating schedule
    Pity the poor teacher who faces an 8 a.m. class each day with the same students. A rotating schedule would allow more of a variety in meeting times, which might result in greater student success, since testing could be moved from the 8 a.m. class to the day when the class meets at 11 a.m.

  • Helping teachers develop a hands-on approach to lesson planning
    If administrators are going to ask teachers to plan more innovative and experiential lessons, then they have to provide teachers with some instruction to do so. Professional consultants in the field of learning could help teachers develop lessons targeted to this type of learning, and they could encourage those who have a knack for this kind of instruction to `share their ideas with others. Teachers who are reluctant to offer participatory lessons would thus be given some help in developing ideas.

On a separate night, the staff of the school will invite parents of the students to attend a meeting designed to inform them about the importance of sleep for adolescents. The event will also address the parents' role in helping to change student sleep patterns. This meeting will first cover the biological and emotional consequences of sleep deprivation, as teachers present what they have learned during the earlier workshop sessions. Parents will be asked to monitor their children's activities in the evening hours for a period of three weeks. They will be given a log to complete designed to track what their children are doing and how much sleep they are getting. The parents are not being asked to modify the sleep behaviors of their children at this time; they are simply being asked to collect data in order for the school to examine what long-term changes are necessary. In three weeks' time, the logs will be returned to the school so that school administrators will be able to study adolescent sleep patterns.

Once the results of the study are tabulated, administrators can then schedule another parent-teacher session in which parents can meet in small groups with their child's homeroom teacher. Teachers would be able to present the results of the sleep logs to their group and ask parents to sign a contract designed to enhance students' sleep patterns. Of course, this would depend upon the amount of sleep students were getting as well as their achievement. The contract would involve parents in helping their children get to bed earlier, in monitoring homework assignments, and in keeping track of changes in sleep behavior.

Such a program involving teachers, administrators and parents reflects an enormous commitment of effort and time, but it is necessary in order to effect changes in sleep-deprived adolescents. The problem must be viewed as serious enough by everyone to warrant these changes.

Part III. Research Proposal

To test the effects of sleep deprivation on highly motivated students

Statement of the problem:
Previous research indicates that sleep deprivation specifically affects short-term memory as well as pre-adolescents' emotional and physical health. Most of the studies have shown that when subjects are kept awake long enough, recently learned material is far more difficult to recall than if they had been allowed a proper amount of sleep prior to testing. In sleep-deprived subjects, studies have shown that short-term memory encoding is affected after subjects have been kept awake for over 24 hours. Realistically, however, most elementary students are rarely kept awake for that period of time. Sleep deprivation in younger children accrues slowly over several weeks or even months, as students are continually getting fewer than 9 hours of sleep each night. Most interesting is the fact that none of the research studies has examined the power of motivation as a counterforce to sleep deprivation.

One thousand fourth graders from public and private schools in Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco would be selected to participate in a four-week project with the permission of the school principal and the subjects' parents. With their parents' help, students will be asked to keep a log for four weeks, indicating their amount of sleep each night. The sleep logs will be analyzed at the experiment's conclusion to examine the correlation the number of hours of sleep and tardiness and absence.

Student name Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Wake up              
Go to bed              
# of sleep hours              

Fourth graders were selected as participants because both their cognitive and social development have entered a new stage and thus they are usually highly motivated in school as an age group. In accordance with APA ethical guidelines, students, parents and teachers will clearly understand the project's goals and thus will be able to give informed consent. Any participants who feel uncomfortable with the experiment should feel free to withdraw. Students and parents will also be told that students' official records of tardiness and absence in the four-week study will be obtained for use during the research project.

Over the four weeks of the study, the subjects will be given four different short-term memory tests. In order to avoid embarrassment in front of their peers, students will be called individually into a private room within the school building for these tests which will include the following:
  • TEST 1: Subjects will be given a list of five vocabulary words and their definitions. The words will be age-appropriate and may or may not be familiar to them. Subjects will be given five minutes to memorize the words; then they will be asked to recall the correct word when given the definition by the tester.
  • TEST 2: Subjects will be given 20 photographs of peoples' faces to remember. After five minutes, they will be asked to recall the particular faces they studied when presented with photographs of many different faces.
  • TEST 3: Subjects will be read a series of five sentences of more than 25 words each. After each sentence is read, they will be asked to recite as much of the sentence as they can recall.
  • TEST 4: Subjects will view a tray containing 15 common household objects, such as a magnet, a salt shaker and a candle. They will be given two minutes to commit the objects to memory, after which time the tray will be removed and they must recall as many objects as they can.

Each test will be administered twice to each student, who will be tested twice a week during the four-week study. The tests will be administered randomly, but each student will never take the same test twice in a week. In all, each student will be tested eight times using the four different tests.

The results of the testing among all the participants will be gathered for analysis at the conclusion of the four-week period. Hypothetically, the number of each student's correct responses (DV) will be dependent upon amount of sleep as a primary factor and then motivation as measured by the number of days they were on time for school during the same period (IV).

Hypothesis: Students who were on time for and present in school will have answered more questions correctly during the four-week period because they were more motivated to perform in school despite the number of hours of sleep they received.

One significant variable must be examined: is attendance at school an appropriate measure of motivation in fourth-graders? Is attendance at all related to the number of correct answers students have achieved? To determine these answers, a Regression Analysis will be used. This test will ascertain if the relative weight of each variable is responsible for the outcome (correct responses) and see if this weight contributes to test scores. Three variables must be considered. Intelligence must be eliminated as a confounding variable, since some students are naturally more intelligent than others and their scores on the four tests could reflect this. The intelligence variable can be controlled through an examination of scores from standardized tests regularly administered to fourth graders. The second variable, sleep deprivation, clearly affects short-term memory and is important in this study. Finally, the third variable, motivation, will be measured by school attendance and promptness. If there is, as predicted, a significant correlation between those students who were on time for school and their number of correct responses, then sleep deprivation will diminish as a confounding variable. Motivation will thus have a mediating effect between sleep deprivation and short-term memory.

The results of the experiment should indicate that a higher correlation exists between motivation and achievement on short-term memory tests than between amount of sleep and similar achievement in testing. Although most formal studies have shown that sleep deprivation is a highly significant factor in short-term memory, this experiment will show that motivation is even more significant.


Black, S. (2000). A wake-up call on high-school starting times. Education Digest, December, 66, 33-38.

Blissitt, P. A. (2001). Sleep, memory and learning. The Journal of Neuroscience Nursing. August, 33, 4, 208-218.

Brink, S. (2000). Sleepless Society. U.S. News and World Report, 129, 15, 62-66.

Carskadon, M.A. (1999). When worlds collide: adolescent need for sleep versus societal demands. Phi Delta Kappan, January, 348-353.

Dahl, R. E. (1997) Sleep onset abnormalities in depressed adolescents. Biological Psychiatry, 39 400-410.

Dahl, R. E. (1999). The consequences of insufficient sleep for adolescents: links between sleep and emotional regulation. Phi Delta Kappan, January, 354-359.

Harrison, Y. and Horne, J.A. (2000). Sleep loss and temporal memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53A, 1, 271-279.

Hunter, J. (2000). Are you getting enough sleep? Maclean's, 113, 16. 42-47.

Kuo, A.A. (2001). Does sleep deprivation impair cognitive and motor performance as much as alcohol intoxication? The Western Journal of Medicine, 174, 3, 180-182.

Lamberg, L. (1996). Some schools agree to let sleeping teens lie. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 276, 11, 859-862.

Maier, T.W. (2001). Sleep sickness. Insight on the news, 17, 20. 10-17.

Polzella, D. J. (1975). Effects of sleep deprivation on short-term recognition memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 104, 2, 194-200.

Robert, G., Hockey, J., Wastell, D.G., and Sauer, J. (1998). Effects of sleep deprivation and user interface on complex performance: a multilevel analysis of compensatory control. Human Factors, 40, 2, 233-256.

Springen, K. (1999). Sleepless and cranky. Newsweek, 133, 20, 86-87.

© 2008 American Psychological Association
Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools • Education Directorate
750 First Street, NE • Washington, DC • 20002-4242
Phone: 202-336-6076 • TDD/TTY: 202-336-6123
Fax: 202-336-5962 • Email
PsychNET® | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Security | Advertise with us