Brain Matters: Sleep Tight, Sleep Right

Do middle school educators spend enough time considering the implications of brain science when constructing their learning environment? Recent articles in the New York Times reminded me how understanding, or at least considering, brain development can impact not only the learning environment but also the teacher-student relationship.

The first article, Want to Ace That Test, Get the Right Kind of Sleep recapped the essential role that sleep, and the appropriate amount of sleep, can play in student learning and performance. Scientists have demonstrated that deep and full sleep is an essential element of adolescent brain development and learning. The research is so dialed in, students can actually, if warranted, change their sleep patterns to accommodate learning in different academic areas. “Studies have found that the first half of the night contains the richest dose of so-called deep sleep — the knocked-out-cold variety — and this is when the brain consolidates facts and figures and new words. This is retention territory, and without it (if we stay up too late), we’re foggier the next day on those basic facts.”¹ In other words, if you want to keep those facts in your memory, go to sleep at the regular time. The article goes on to describe how different sleep patterns can result in different learning performance outcomes. As a teacher, these kinds of insights can help inform our practice and but also the information we can relay to students about health benefits related to rest and sleep.

Reading the article reminded me of a chapter in Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman called “The Lost Hour”. In that chapter the authors describe the detrimental impact that lost hours of sleep can have on student performance. Unfortunately, the research also shows that those lost hours, over the course of a week, can have a cumulative impact. In a nutshell, students need to be constantly reminded to get enough sleep. Not doing so can have huge impacts on performance and as everyday educators know, attitudes and academic disposition.

The second article related to adolescent development was somewhat more tangentially related to education. In Interrogations, Teenagers are Too Young to Know Better the subjects were adolescents charged with crimes. What makes the study relative was the insights gained regarding adolescent decision-making. The teenagers charged were considered “more vulnerable at the gates to the criminal justice system” and demonstrated serious flaws in their ability to make effective decisions. From the article:

Teenagers, studies show, are not developmentally ready to make critical decisions that have long-term impacts.

“Adolescents are more oriented to the present, so they are less likely than adults to be thinking about the future consequences of what they’re saying,” said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University who writes about teenagers in the justice system and was not involved in this study.


Moreover, research shows that teenagers aged 15 and younger will unwittingly comply with authority figures. They are very suggestible, so that during an interrogation, they are more likely than adults to change their answers in response to interviewers.

Teachers and adults who work with adolescents benefit from these insights into brain development as they relate directly to the classroom environment. Through an increased understanding of the adolescent brain and its stages of development (and vulnerabilities), we can improve our educational offerings and the health and well-being of our students.


  1. Carey, Benedict. “Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep.”Motherlode Want to Ace That Test Get the Right Kind of Sleep Comments. New York Times, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <;
  2. Also from the New York Times Motherlode Blog: Read more about sleep on Motherlode: On Sleep Research, My Children Didn’t Get the Memo; We Tell Kids to ‘Go to Sleep!’ We Need to Teach Them Why.; and ‘What Do Students Need Most? More Sleep.
  3. Hoffman, Jan. “In Interrogations, Teenagers Are Too Young to Know Better.” Well. New York Times, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <;.

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