Sarah has covered news topics for digital and print publications. She holds a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nevada.
Socioeconomic status, sleep, race, and academic achievement intersect, according to a May 2021 study published in Child Development. The longitudinal study examined how sleep health and sleep disorder symptoms in children of different racial backgrounds are related to classroom behavior and academic achievement.
The study focused on students in neighborhoods of a historically, economically, and socially disadvantaged urban U.S. school district, which was made up of 80% families of color. This allowed researchers to study factors, such as socioeconomic status and discrimination, in the context of sleep health, noting that “social position, racism, and discrimination together shape policies and institutional context which influence sleep health by setting constraints on, or opportunities for, conditions that promote positive sleep health.”
Through this long-term study, researchers tracked the sleep patterns and classroom behaviors of pre-K students in 10 elementary schools within historically, economically, and socially disadvantaged neighborhoods of a large urban district. The study then followed up with teacher and parent observations when the students were first graders, then again with assessments administered by research staff when the students were second graders.
Research found that inconsistent bedtime routine, daytime sleepiness, and insufficient sleep quality were common challenges among this group of students. Over time, these sleep health risks may result in issues with physical and mental health, as well as academic achievement. The study’s findings noted that insufficient sleep among children increases the likelihood of teacher-reported classroom challenges.
During the children’s first grade school year, teachers tracked the children’s daytime sleepiness in the classroom for several weeks, while parents rated their child’s sleep behaviors at home. According to teacher responses, 22% of children exhibited at least some level of daytime sleepiness. According to the children’s parents, more than half of the children resisted bedtime at least once per week.
Notably, disordered breathing also occurred one or more times per week in nearly 20% of children studied, which can be an early indicator of sleep apnea — further raising concerns about the children’s future health.
While the study illustrated how children of historically disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to display signs of daytime sleepiness in the classroom, researchers noted that it is essential to acknowledge how an observer’s potential racial bias may impact how the observer perceives a child’s behavior.
Such biases may lead to the perception of classroom sleepiness as carelessness or noncompliance. Including a standardized assessment administered by research staff helped mitigate the potential of bias that could skew the study’s results.
While eradicating racism is at the forefront of the nation’s movements, this study suggests that scientifically studying and recognizing the risks of poor sleep quality is a step toward mitigating biases and creating lasting solutions.
The study “highlights the importance of educating both parents and teachers about fostering positive sleep habits in young children for their school success,” said Dr. Alexandra Ursache, Assistant Professor of Population Health at NYU Grossman
School of Medicine. “The study indicates that encouraging teachers to share their observations of children’s sleepiness with parents, in a collaborative and culturally-affirming manner, could help make them aware of its interference with learning.”
Educating teachers to recognize sleepiness in the classroom is important for not only children’s academic achievement, but their overall health. Researchers point to the possibility of a sleep health curriculum for educators to recognize classroom sleepiness and effectively communicate these observations in order to help address this issue.
Home-based solutions for parents, such as audio-based mobile apps, may help with establishing happy and easy bedtime routines — an area that more than half of the study’s participants reported issues with.
“Sleep is a critical component of healthy development for children,” said Dr. Rebecca Robbins, Associate Scientist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “A bedtime schedule that allows for sufficient rest at this age is a significant predictor of short term outcomes, including emotional health and well-being and fewer behavioral problems, to longer term outcomes, including academic performance later in their development.”