Poor sleep can affect children’s academic performance in disinvested neighborhoods


Sleep Health | Sleep Review

Poor sleep health can disproportionately affect colored children from families with low socioeconomic status, putting them at risk for behavioral problems and poor academic performance. But few sleep studies use standard measures of both classroom behavior and academic performance.

A new longitudinal study examined the relationship between sleep, classroom behavior and school performance in mainly black children who grew up in historically disinvested neighborhoods. Disinvested refers to neighborhoods where public and private funds, city services or other necessary resources have been denied or withheld and are therefore often segregated according to racial and economic boundaries. The results showed that sleep is related to observed behavior in the classroom and can predict future school performance.

The results were published in an article on child development written by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Texas at Austin.

According to the study, higher teacher-reported sleepiness in children was associated with lower observed adaptive behavior (defined as active engagement in learning in the classroom) and higher classroom behavior problems in first grade. Higher teacher-reported drowsiness in children also predicted lower academic performance assessed a year later in the second grade. The resistance to bedtime reported by the parents and the disturbed breathing also predicted lower performance in the second grade.

“Our study, the first to examine how sleep is related to observed learning engagement and academic test scores from mostly black children growing up in uninvested neighborhoods, highlights the importance of educating parents and teachers about promoting positive sleep habits in young children for children their school success, ”said Alexandra Cause, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, in a press release. “The study shows that encouraging teachers to share their observations of children’s sleepiness with parents in a collaborative and culturally validating manner could help alert them to the impairment of learning.”

The study included 572 mostly black first-grade girls and boys, more than half of whom came from immigrant families. The children came from 10 schools in historically disinvested neighborhoods in New York City. Children in the first and second grades (approximately 6 and 7 years old) were assessed on:

  • Sleep Health and Sleep Disorder Symptoms: Parents used a questionnaire to report their children’s sleep resistance, length of sleep, disturbed breathing, daytime sleepiness, and delay in falling asleep. The teachers reported how tired their students were during the day.
  • Classroom behavior (adaptive and problematic behavior): Observers on the research team used a coding system to assess students’ adaptive behavior (non-verbally actively engaged learning such as listening, nodding, sitting up, working on an assigned task) and problem behaviors (behavioral or emotional problems).
  • Academic Success: To assess reading, arithmetic and writing skills in the second grade, a standardized performance assessment was carried out by trained academic assistants.

“Sleep is an essential part of healthy child development, and children of color are at increased risk of poor sleep health and undetected sleep disorders,” said Alicia Chung, EdD, MPH, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, in a press release. “This can create the conditions for sleepiness in school, increased problem behavior, decreased engagement in learning activities and lower academic performance.”

“The results suggest the possibility that developing a sleep health curriculum can help motivate teachers and parents to promote sleep health,” said Rebecca Robbins, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a press release.

The authors acknowledge that the sleep measurements used in this study were reported by parents and teachers and not by objective, standardized assessments (e.g., recorded by activity monitors). The authors also acknowledge that the measures provided by teachers and parents may have an inherent bias that incorrectly classifies Black children or African American children as sleepy. Although the authors controlled several important covariates and examined longitudinal relationships with school performance, they cannot make strong causal statements about the relationships between sleep health and teaching behavior or performance at one without a research design that intentionally manipulates sleep behavior, for example by randomly selecting a few families Intervention to promote sleep health. Nor should this work be transferred to Latinx children or other populations of colored children.

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