Let’s start at the very beginning…

Maslow's hierarchy of NeedsThe psychologist Abraham Maslow, between the mid-940s and the late 1960s, developed and refined a model of human needs, the eponymous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He proposed that humans must have their most basic physiological needs met before they are able to focus upon safety and security; then progress through the hierarchy towards the psychosocial need to belong and be accepted; to develop esteem; and finally to self-actualisation where one is able to become everything that one is capable of becoming and feel fulfilled. His theory proposed that unless needs at the base of the hierarchy (presented as a pyramid) are met, an individual is unable to progress to higher and more complex needs.

This means that in order for any of us to achieve our best, we must begin by getting our most basic physiological needs met. These needs include the need for sleep, for adequate nutrition and for exercise. Students must have basic requirements in place if they are to progress to higher levels of functioning, achieve in academic endeavours and realise potential. We all need sleep in order to think clearly, to concentrate and to function at higher levels. Because of significant physiological and cognitive development taking place, teenagers need more sleep than at any time since they were infants.

Teenagers need 9¼ hours sleep a night to enable optimal neural development and for bodies to grow during phenomenal adolescent growth spurts. Circadian rhythms control patterns of sleeping and waking.  During puberty and into early adulthood, melatonin, (the hormone that tells our brains to switch off and become sleepy) is produced later in the evening. Despite getting to sleep later, adolescents still need 9¼ hours of sleep so they may be difficult to rouse and sleepy in the morning. If students are woken too early, they miss REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is important for memory, learning, judgement, mood and immune function.

brain-sleepSleep expert, Mary Carskadon, estimates that adolescents are accumulating a sleep deficit of approximately ten hours each week.  The stress hormone, cortisol, accumulates in sleep-deprived individuals, increasing feelings of stress and anxiety.  This can become a vicious cycle and a source of conflict between parents, who understand the importance of sleep, and students, who are not feeling sleepy at night but are quite sleepy in the morning.

To ensure adequate amounts of sleep, the following sleep hygiene and regular, healthy sleep patterns can be implemented by all members of the family:

  • Use bright light to help you wake up (open curtains or turn lights on)
  • Exposure to natural light (outside) in the morning and darkness at night
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks and chocolate) after lunchtime
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco or sleeping pills (unless prescribed by a doctor)
  • Use activity to stay awake if you are tired during the day
  • Avoid computer games, excitement, bright lights and loud noise at night
  • Catch up sleep on the weekends by going to sleep earlier rather than sleeping late the next day
  • Warm milk drinks at night help to induce sleep (it’s not a myth!)
  • Introduce quiet music, relaxation exercises and unhurried activities
  • Use gentle exercise such as yoga or stretching to relax and unwind
  • Have a warm (not very hot) bath just before bedtime
  • Some people find lavender oil and herbal (caffeine free) teas useful
  • Establish a regular routine before bed and stick to it
  • Keep your bed for sleep – don’t try to study on your bed
  • Read or listen to quiet music for a short time when you get into bed
  • If you are not asleep after about 15 minutes, get up and quietly potter about until sleepy.

Sleeping dog with alarmSleep is important all through the term but particularly so around exam time. A study at Harvard University showed that revising the evening before an exam is helpful because during REM sleep the brain rehearses and stores information that has been recently learnt, but all-night cramming is counter-productive because REM sleep is lost and memory function disrupted.

© Michele Juratowitch