A Parent's Guide to the Neuroscience of Earning As: Sleep and Academic Success

What is an “electronic blackout”? Can I really make it happen in our home- and how will it improve my child’s grades?

Its not just teenagers who don’t get enough sleep. Many adults, particularly women in their 30s and 40s come into my office worried that they have adult ADD, or worse, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. When we talk about their daily schedule, an overwhelming set of multiple roles and responsibilities emerge. Work, carpools, volunteering, household management. The only time they seem to have to themselves is late at night after the kids go to bed. So they get 6 or 6 ½ hours of sleep each night. And the next morning? Tired. Poor attention.

Neuroscience backs up the folk wisdom that a good night’s sleep is important (“early to bed..early to rise..) Functional neuroimaging now allows us to compare brain function in people who aren’t getting enough sleep each night with those who are. After only a week of 6 ½ hours sleep each night, brain metabolism substantially declines. Particularly in the frontal lobe: affecting attention, problem solving, and the ability to resist distracters. This is bad news for teenagers who are chronically sleep deprived, and really tough on kids of all ages whose parents haven’t structured an early enough bed time.

Our children really need a good nights’ sleep in order to be able to pay attention and learn efficiently. In my clinical practice I frequently see students like Matthew, whose family brought him in to my office convinced that he had attention deficit disorder. His real problem was two years worth of 6 hours of sleep each night. The dilemma in his case was common. An early start time for his high school conflicted with his natural teenage circadian rhythm. Teenagers naturally fall asleep later and get up later in the day. Unfortunately, because school starts so early, often they go to bed late and wake up early, resulting in chronic low level sleep deprivation. So how do we get our teenagers to sleep at a reasonable hour?

ELECTRONIC BLACKOUT:   

The human brain is highly stimulated by electronics: the fast edits of TV, quick pace of video games, multitasking of instant messaging, the beats of songs on the ipod. It is very difficult to fall asleep immediately after shutting the TV off, when the brain is highly stimulated. Rather, the brain needs to come in for a soft landing, gradually relaxing from the high stimulation of daily activities. If one stays highly stimulated until getting into bed, often time there is 30 to 60 minutes of staring at the ceiling before the brain can quiet down and fall asleep. Many people, who never turn off their electronics must use the technique of exhaustion to fall asleep. If one goes to bed after midnight, even a highly stimulated brain will shut down from sheer exhaustion. Often, they will say “but I can’t fall asleep before midnight.” In reality, they don’t give their brains a chance to fall asleep at a more reasonable hour.

The electronic blackout is one of many “sleep hygiene techniques” that allows your teenager’s brain to “come in for a soft landing” beginning about an hour before the target bedtime, so that when their heads hit the pillow, they will be ready to sleep. It’s not rocket science, but it is very effective. One hour prior to bed time, have your child turn off the TV, ipod, cell phone, and computer. They can read, play a game, finish homework, or catch up with family members. Of course you will get flack for this new policy. But the result will be an earlier bedtime, and greater attention capacity during the school day.