Guest Post: The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on a Child's Mental and Emotional Well-Being

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As educators, we have long known that children who do not get enough sleep struggle when they get to school. In my experience, this seems to be an increasing issue for more students in recent years. As a counselor, I’ve been specifically concerned with the impact on how well children can regulate emotions during the school day, let alone learn new things, get along with others, or in some cases, merely stay awake.

With this in mind, I am excited to share a guest post written especially for the Emotional Wellness Project by the experts at the Sleep Help Institute. Take a look at the research and their tips for helping children get a good night’s sleep.

Choosing Calm,


Tips for Helping Children Sleep

1.      Keep a Consistent Bedtime

2.      Follow a Bedtime Routine

3.      Avoid Screens

4.      Calm Things Down in the Evening

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on a Child's Mental and Emotional Well-Being

By the Sleep Help Institute

Many children have a hard time managing their emotions for an entire school day. When they are sleep deprived, their mental and emotional well-being diminishes, making outbursts and other behavior problems more likely. Depending on their age, kids need anywhere from 8 to 12 hours of sleep to be fully rested. But many children come to school with far less, and it can impact their academic and social success.

Anytime a child gets even one hour less than the recommended amount of sleep they enter a state of sleep deprivation. In that state, their brains and bodies start to change how they function.

Sleep and Emotional Regulation

A study published in Pediatrics explored the effects of sleep extension on child behavior. None of the participants had any underlying medical conditions including sleep or behavioral disorders. The children ranged in age from 7-11 and, after extending their sleep time by an average of 27 minutes, the children showed significant improvements to their alertness and emotional regulation. The study also found that after reducing sleep by 54 minutes, the children had an increase in sleepiness and impulsive behavior.

During sleep deprivation, the emotional center of the brain, called the amygdala, becomes more sensitive to negative stimuli. As the amygdala sensitizes, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for concentration and higher reasoning, becomes less active. Consequently, children (and adults) become far more susceptible to negative thoughts, experiences, and emotions. In general, children are even more susceptible because their brains and bodies are still developing.

Promote Current and Future Mental Health

A child’s current emotional well-being can have an enduring influence on their later life. A study conducted at the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston found that sleep deprivation not only caused more negative emotions but also caused children to get less pleasure from positive experiences. The lack of positive experiences can carry over into their future social interactions.

An article published in Sleep Medicine Reviews suggested that without enough sleep, people are less likely to participate in activities that require more effort. The potential for the social and emotional isolation that leads to anxiety and depression increases.

Childhood Sleep Problems

Childhood sleep problems are not uncommon. Rather than having adult disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy, children are more likely to experience night terrors, sleepwalking, and bedwetting. Most of these issues are outgrown because they stem from an immature nervous system.  However, they can trigger other issues like anxiety that seep over into other parts of life and interfere with developing a healthy sleep pattern.

If a child has a sleep problem that could be related a sleep disorder, you may want to consult a physician to see if there are any treatments, behavior modifications, or medications that could help.

How to Help Children Sleep

Good sleep habits developed in childhood can contribute to long-term health. High-quality sleep starts in a bedroom devoted to sleep. A child’s mattress should be comfortable and supportive. If your child is using an old mattress, it could have lumps or valleys that disrupt his sleep during the night. The days of trudging through a mattress store are over as most mattresses can now be ordered online and delivered to your front door. Beyond the mattress, the room should be cool, dark, and quiet to give your child’s brain and body a chance to relax and calm down for the day.

Behaviors and habits throughout the day can also make a big difference in the quality of a child’s sleep. You can help develop healthy sleep habits by:

  • Keeping a Consistent Bedtime: For kids, consistency is key. The human body loves routine as it controls the sleep-wake cycle using 24-hour biological and physiological cycles called circadian rhythms to time the release of sleep hormones. Try to keep the same bedtime on the weekends so your child isn’t fighting sleep debt on Monday morning.
  • Following Bedtime Routine: A regular nightly pattern can make the biggest difference for many children. Routines help their brains recognize when to start the release of hormones that make them feel sleepy. They also allow children to release stress. A warm bath, bedtime story, quiet rocking or singing can all be good ways to help a child calm down for the night.
  • Avoiding Screens: The bright blue light from televisions, laptops, and smartphones suppresses the release of sleep hormones. Some devices have low blue light settings to counteract this problem, but for most, you’ll have to shut the screens off at least two to three hours before bed.
  • Calming Things Down in the Evening: Full schedules can make evenings hectic for many families. As much as you can, try to calm things down in the evening starting about an hour before bedtime.

Being a Teacher is Hard!

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Being a Teacher is Hard!

15 Positive Practices to Help You Find Balance

It is difficult and important work, teaching children. The demands are high, time and resources are stretched thin, the nature of the work is often isolated from other adults, and far too often negativity is knocking at the door. Bad press, unpassed levies, ugly social media posts, angry parents, worn-out colleagues, and then there are the children themselves. As each year passes there seem to be more students with challenging behaviors, overwhelming needs, and the complicated histories of trauma and lack of support at home. To say that keeping a healthy life balance is difficult would be an understatement, so let’s talk about how we can recommit to self-care practices and leverage some of the growing positive psychology research to help us stay on a good path.

1.  Eat lunch. No, really, do it. And while you are at it try to be healthy about it. Plan ahead so you can have something nutritious and good for you. Staff rooms are notorious repositories for sugary indulgences and leftover sweets folks don’t want at their house anymore.

2.  Exercise. Walk, run, hike, join a Zumba class, or sign up for tap dance lessons. Seriously, I did this with our Dean of Students and it was so fun! Find a physical activity that works for you. Try to build in some movement into your work day as well. Even a quick walk and fresh air at lunch can do wonders for your energy levels.

3.  Guard your sleep. Turn off screens early. Do not think about work before bedtime. Go to bed at a consistent time and make sure you get enough sleep.

4.  Spend time outside. Research is discovering the importance of being immersed in nature. Take time to step outside on the playground and breathe in the gentle breeze, feel the warmth of the sunshine on your face, or smell the clean scent of rain (I live near Seattle). On your time off, make it a priority to spend time outside, often.

5.  Care for your emotions. Teachers have feelings too! That’s okay! Validate how you are feeling and then be deliberate in taking care of yourself. Find a friend to talk to without violating confidentiality and then move forward without dwelling on the difficult feelings we are exposed to in our work with children exposed to trauma.

6.  Grow boundaries. Leave it at the office. Don’t think about work at home. For me, when I think about issues at home they take up residence. I’d rather work late and then walk away. Say no to involvements that do not bring you joy or add to your work in meaningful ways.

7.   Make time for mindfulness. Build in quiet breaks during the day. Slow down and be present in the moment, even for a few three minutes. In the busyness of the school day, we need to take care of ourselves. Breathe, relax, and slow your own mind down.

8.  Revamp your self-talk. Are you worrying about the students? Hope for good things for our little ones in distress and then leave them at work. Remind yourself, “I didn’t cause it. I will unlikely see the full impact of my good work, but I have chosen to make myself available to help.” Are you overwhelmed? Rehearse, “One step at a time. I’ve got this!”

9.  Nurture positive thoughts and foster gratitude. What is something you are looking forward to? What is one good thing that happened in the day? Focus on that! Create a gratitude journal: What are you grateful for? In your personal life? What joy or meaningful interaction did you help create? What evidences of success can you write about, even a tiny break-through?

10.  Phone a friend. Invest in your social support networks and build relationships in and outside of work. Sometimes, we just need a friend.

11.  Be encouraged by being an encourager. Send an affirming email to someone at work. Write a thank you note. Avoid negative talk. Do not get sucked in but be an agent of change by saying something kind or even acknowledging your self-care by saying you are trying to be positive.

12.  Exercise your creativity. Add value by exercising a personal strength. Do you have a hobby or something you like to do? Photography? Crafting? Exercising creativity at work and outside of work can help you renew.

13.  Develop a growth mindset. Learn, stretch, and grow. You will make mistakes and that is okay, remember, that is what helps us learn. Continue to grow your teaching practice. Add, delete, edit. Keep developing your craft and seeking new and better resources and ways to do this good work. 

14.  Power down. Manage your availability and information access to improve your happiness and effectiveness. Schedule time to return calls and answer emails but try to avoid cramming them in at lunch. Constant connectivity to our email, phones, and social media can mean we literally don’t get a break. That’s not good for anybody!

15.   Set goals. Identify small manageable goals and build from there. When you cannot do it all, my philosophy is, “Do the worst first.” Whatever task causes the most stress or has the biggest impact for the least effort, start there.  

Thank you for investing in the lives of children. Adding healthy self-care practices into your daily routines will boost your ability to keep up the good work and establish a healthy balance.

Choosing Calm,


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Rebecca Bowen, M.Ed. is a full-time school counselor in Washington state and the author of My Incredible Talking Body: Learning to Be Calm, a picture book that teaches emotional regulation and provides parents and educators with strategies to support the children in their lives.



Research and Inspiration

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Broadway Books.

Bernstein, E. E., & McNally, R. J. (2017). Acute aerobic exercise helps overcome emotion regulation deficits. Cognition and Emotion, 31(4), 834-843.

Dweck, C. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Three Rivers Press.