As any parent of young children will know, the effects of sleep deprivation, or even sleep interruption, are debilitating. At best, the mind is fuzzy. What’s normally done with ease or with little thought, takes extra time and needs to be completed deliberately, consciously:
Leave house. Get in car. Keys in ignition. Check mirrors. Stop. Forgotten to put shoes on. Back to house.
As well as making mundane tasks preposterously complex, lack of sleep severely diminishes intellectual power and the process of learning. It’s incredibly hard to concentrate and to remain alert.
Clear communication fades into a blur of half-formed words and mumbled sentences. Any chance of using reason or persuasion is nullified by the overwhelming desire to curl up and sleep (or weep). Writing, particularly writing with clarity, becomes unimaginably difficult as the rhythmic flow is replaced by a murk and a fug that obscures intended meanings.
The absence of sufficient sleep also hinders the process of ‘storing’ or consolidating learning as memory. Without the necessary winks each night, not only will it be hard to learn the next day but, the chances are, much of what was learnt will be forgotten or become jumbled, harder to retrieve when needed. Sleep oils the pathways of memory and, without it, recall becomes laboured or confused.
What must it be like if you are a child coming to school in such a state – exhausted and ill-prepared for the day ahead? No matter how much planning and preparation, a teacher faced with an exhausted child is doomed to fail. The real problem arises when the one-off, the staying up late because of a party or the missed bedtime because of a protracted journey home, becomes routine.
For some, bedtime routines – the dull but necessary habits of getting child up the stairs, washed, pyjama-ed and calm – can be slack and chaotic. TVs blare and consoles click, long past suitable hours. For others, the grim reality of over-crowding mean peace and quiet are hard to find.
It’s hard to say how many, but a significant proportion of children in my school are what should be called ‘persistently exhausted’. You can see them the next day; bleary-eyed, yawning, disruptive, upset. They’re the ones that are falling behind.
My hunch is that exhaustion is as big a problem as absenteeism and, over time, has a similar impact on learning and life chances. What to do, though? Solutions are hard to find, that’s for sure.
I’m trying to think. Problem is, I’m beat – I was up all night with the kids.