Maximise Your Child’s Learning Potential

When I was growing up, there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the brain and how it functioned. In fact, we knew so little about it that we often did a lot of things that negatively impacted our learning. For instance, pulling all-nighters before an exam was a norm, perhaps even expected if you cared enough about doing well in your exams (never mind the fact that we now know you are better off getting a good night’s rest before the exam than burning the midnight oil). It was also typical to stop all other activities – no music, sports or extra-curricular activities (unless they were part of your final year subjects) – so we could concentrate on studying for those vital transcripts that would dictate our options for future career paths.

It was in ignorance that we did a lot of things that were really derailing us from achieving the goals we were so desperate for. Now, we know better. Helping our children succeed in school isn’t only about which special programs and extra classes we can enroll them into so they can get the one-up on their peers, it is also about creating a positive environment and ensuring that our children are well – physically and emotionally. If we are truly interested in the academic success of our children, we also need to ensure that we meet their needs for optimal learning.

These are some annotated notes from a talk at our school recently on unleashing the potential in our children by understanding the importance of wellness from a neuro-scientific perspective. If we want our children to reach maximum potential, we need to make sure that these needs are attended to…

Sleep to Learn

This is why all those late nights were so bad for our academic performance…

What happens when your brain doesn’t sleep?

  • slower thought processes
  • difficulty forming logical conclusions to problems
  • difficulty learning new tasks
  • difficulty making novel connections
  • lack of imagination
  • lack of focus
  • stuttering
  • blurred vision
  • hallucinations
  • slurred speech

Image Source: The Holiner Psychiatric Group

It can be so significant that the lost of one hour of sleep a night can make a sixth grader function at the level of a fourth grader. The bottom line: if your child isn’t sleeping enough, academic performance suffers.

Hydrating the Brain

We need to make sure our children are drinking enough water because 75% of the human body is water. If the body is not adequately hydrated, it affects their ability to keep their attention focused, it impairs short-term memory and the recall of long-term memory, and it compromises their ability to perform mental arithmetic.

Related: How Dehydration Impacts Brain Function

Feed the Brain Right

Like any other part of the body, the brain requires nutrients and energy for optimal functioning.

Top 5 Brain Foods:

  1. Oily Fish – Omega 3 is essential for development and maintenance of brain tissue
  2. Blueberries – protects short term memory loss
  3. Pumpkin Seeds – Good alternative source of Omega 3 for vegetarians
  4. Chocolates – may help sharpen the mind and boost short-term cognitive skills
  5. Avocado – helps blood flow to the brain which is important for staying alert and focused.

Related: Nutrition – Boosting Brain Power

Take Brain Breaks

This is why we should not encourage our children to quit their sports and other extra-curricular to devote their focus on their studies…

Taking breaks from studying is good for the brain – especially when the breaks involve physical activity. The following image shows EEGs of the brain’s neuroelectric activity during a test after 20 minutes either sitting or walking. The group that sat for 20 minutes have more blue areas indicating a dip in neural resources devoted to focus, while the group that went for a walk have heightened attention and faster information processing.

Image Source: Slideshare

Related: Sports and Physical Activity are Important for Brain Development and Academic Performance

Sense of Purpose

Encourage kids to develop their own passions and interests because that joy and enthusiasm they have will transcend their learning experience. Having a positive motivation for learning has a positive effect on the brain. It triggers the release of chemical messengers in the brain which in turn increases executive function and attention.

High achievers without a sense of purpose are more prone to depression, anxiety and suicide, while those with a sense of purpose were more positive, motivated and stronger learners. – Edutopia

See also: How a Bigger Purpose Can Motivate Students to Learn

Stress Management

It is important to teach our children how to manage stress because a stressed brain cannot learn.

Stress impacts memory and learning. During periods of stress, we are more forgetful and we have greater difficulty retaining information. Stress also sabotages the neural pathways of the prefrontal cortex (higher brain function) which carries out the executive functions – self-control, impulse control, memory, and reasoning – which are vital for successful learning.

Image Source: Brain Harmony Center


Practice Mindfulness

One way to help children learn to manage stress is to teach them to practice mindfulness. Here’s why:

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.


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Adolescents and Sleep Deprivation: AAP Recommends Delaying School Starting Time


Image Credit: Stockimages /

This is a topic that has been bugging me ever since I read the chapter in Nurture Shock on The Lost Hour – schools are starting too early and our teenagers are not getting enough sleep.

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement recommending that middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 am or later. Comments from a number of readers of Scientific American were up in arms over this suggestion. They felt that the problem was not that schools were starting too early but that teenagers just needed to be more disciplined about sleeping earlier and getting out of bed earlier. The sentiment seemed to be that we would be “giving in” to unruly, lazy teenagers who have simply developed bad sleeping habits and just needed to change them. It made me wonder if they had actually even read the article.

Teenagers get a bad rap. There is a stereotype about them and it’s not a nice one. The picture that’s painted is of a group of individuals who are self-centered, obnoxious, rebellious, out of control, and generally up to no good. But as much as we would like to blame them for their sleep woes, I’m afraid that the science actually supports them on this one…

Teenagers Have Altered Circadian Rhythms

Studies show our biologic clocks change with puberty. Many teens are not ready to fall asleep until at least midnight or later. However, they still need eight or nine hours of sleep per night, and would normally awaken at 8-10 a.m. or later.

This tendency in teens and young adults is called delayed sleep phase, and may interfere with daytime activities such as school. For this reason, many school systems around the country are adopting later start times for high schools and finding that this results in better scholastic performance. – UNM School of Medicine

What are Circadian Rhythms?

Also dubbed the “body’s clock”, the circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep and regulates many other physiological processes. This internal body clock is affected by environmental cues, like sunlight and temperature. In the teenage years, this sleep-wake cycle can be moved up to 2 hours later.

Changes to this circadian rhythm occur during adolescence, when most teens experience a sleep phase delay. This shift in teens’ circadian rhythm causes them to naturally feel alert later at night, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00 pm. Since most teens have early school start times along with other commitments, this sleep phase delay can make it difficult to get the sleep teens need — an average of 9 1/4 hours, but at least 8 1/2 hours. This sleep deprivation can influence the circadian rhythm; for teens the strongest circadian “dips” tend to occur between 3:00-7:00 am and 2:00-5:00 pm, but the morning dip (3:00-7:00 am) can be even longer if teens haven’t had enough sleep, and can even last until 9:00 or 10:00 am. – Sleep Foundation

The Role of Melatonin

One of the hormones that controls our circadian rhythm is called melatonin. It helps to regulate the sleep–wake cycle by chemically causing drowsiness and lowering the body’s temperature. In teenagers, the nightly schedule of melatonin is produced later than it is for younger children and adults, making it harder for them to fall asleep early.

Teenagers Start School Earlier

The teenage years are also the time when adolescents begin secondary school which usually has an earlier starting time. The need for an early start causes a disruption to their normal circadian rhythms and a growing body of research is demonstrating that this can have adverse health effects, like increasing the chances of cardiovascular events, obesity, and a correlation with neurological problems like depression and bipolar disorder.

No wonder our teenagers are often moody and snarky. They are sleep deprived!

Sleep is Important!

Sleep deprivation has significant consequences:

  • it decreases performance and alertness – reducing your nighttime sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night could result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32%
  • it causes memory and cognitive impairment affecting your recall, your judgement, and your ability to think and process information.
  • it reduces quality of life and contributes to the symptoms of depression
  • it increases the risk of accidents – both occupational and automobile injuries
  • it increases your risk of other health problems, such as heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes; and it may increase risk of death

Sleep deprivation is especially a concern for children who are still growing and developing. If they don’t get enough sleep, a lot of things start to go wrong.

Starting School Later

“research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life.” – Judith Owens, paediatrician.

According to Scientific American, the later classes begin, the more academic performance improves. Attendance goes up, teen depression goes down, and fewer student drivers get into car crashes.

The results of a 3 year research study, conducted with over 9,000 students in eight public high schools in three states, reveal that high schools that start at 8:30 am or later allow for more than 60% of students to obtain at least eight hours of sleep per school night. Teens getting less than eight hours of sleep reported significantly higher depression symptoms, greater use of caffeine, and are at greater risk for making poor choices for substance use. Academic performance outcomes, including grades earned in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies, plus performance on state and national achievement tests, attendance rates and reduced tardiness show significantly positive improvement with the later start times of 8:35 am or later. Finally, the number of car crashes for teen drivers from 16 to 18 years of age was significantly reduced by 70% when a school shifted start times from 7:35 am to 8:55 am. – University of Minesota (February, 2014)

Further Reading:

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Children and Sleep: If They Don’t Snooze, They Lose…

If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, his performance in school drops. Well that’s obvious. But what may not be obvious is how significantly it impacts your child if he misses just one hour of sleep a night.

“A sleep deprivation study on a group of elementary students revealed that sixth graders, missing one hour of sleep a night, performed in class at the level of a fourth grader.” – The Lost Hour, Nurture Shock

“children between the ages of 10 and 16 who have sleep disordered breathing, which includes snoring, sleep apnea, and other types of interrupted breathing during sleep, are more likely to have problems with attention and learning, according to a 2010 study in the journal Sleep” – Health

Image courtesy of Stoonn /

Getting enough sleep is vital to academic success

These are 6 reasons from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine on why sleep is important for academic success:

  • Sleepiness and poor sleep quality are prevalent among university students, affecting their academic performance and daytime functioning.
  • Students with symptoms of sleep disorders are more likely to receive poor grades in classes such as math, reading and writing than peers without symptoms of sleep disorders.
  • College students with insomnia have significantly more mental health problems than college students without insomnia.
  • College students with medical-related majors are more likely to have poorer quality of sleep in comparison to those with a humanities major.
  • College students who pull “all-nighters” are more likely to have a lower GPA.
  • Students who stay up late on school nights and make up for it by sleeping late on weekends are more likely to perform poorly in the classroom. This is because, on weekends, they are waking up at a time that is later than their internal body clock expects. The fact that their clock must get used to a new routine may affect their ability to be awake early for school at the beginning of the week when they revert back to their old routine.


Sleep problems and drug use

According to the American Psychological Association:

“a long-term study published in the 2004 April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, [showed that] young teenagers whose preschool sleep habits were poor were more than twice as likely to use drugs, tobacco or alcohol. The researchers suggest that early sleep problems may be a “marker” for predicting later risk of early adolescent substance abuse—and that there may be a common biological factor underlying both traits.”


Why is sleep important?

The Harvard Health Publications share these reasons why it is important to get enough sleep:

  • Learning and memory – sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
  • Metabolism and weight – chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
  • Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime.
  • Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
  • Sleep deprivation alters immune function, including the activity of the body’s killer cells. Keeping up with sleep may also help fight cancer.

Health Magazine adds that sleep also has these effects:

  • spurs creativity – your brain reorganizes and restructures memory which may result in more creativity. Additionally, people seem to strengthen the emotional components of a memory during sleep, which may help spur the creative process.
  • improved physical performance – a Stanford University study found that college football players who tried to sleep at least 10 hours a night for seven to eight weeks improved their average sprint time and had less daytime fatigue and more stamina.
  • facilitates weight loss – researchers at the University of Chicago found that dieters who were well rested lost more fat—56% of their weight loss—than those who were sleep deprived, who lost more muscle mass. Dieters in the study also felt more hungry when they got less sleep. “Sleep and metabolism are controlled by the same sectors of the brain,” Dr. Rapoport says. “When you are sleepy, certain hormones go up in your blood, and those same hormones drive appetite.”
  • not sleeping enough can lead to depression


Why are children sleeping later?

  • hectic family schedules – reluctance of late-working parents to pack their kids off to bed early, sheer parental exhaustion allows kids to win the sleeptime skirmishes
  • over-scheduling with too many extra-curricular activities
  • overstimulation in children who have TVs in their bedrooms, play video games too close to bedtime, or even texting on their phones

How do you know when your child is not sleeping enough?

  • constantly falling asleep in the car even on short trips
  • eye rubbing, irritability, and aggressive behavior
  • a child who needs a lot of prodding to start moving in the morning may be sleeping too late

Even if your child gets up on her own, that isn’t necessarily a sign that she’s fully rested. Dr Mindell, director of behavioral pediatrics of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explains that we have very strong internal clocks and some children will wake up at a certain hour no matter what time they go to bed.


The problem with teenagers and sleep

Probably the most concerning issue with children and sleep involve teenagers…

“during the teen years, the body’s circadianrhythm (sort of like an internal biological clock) is temporarily reset, telling a person to fall asleep later and wake up later. This change might be due to the fact that the brain hormonemelatonin is produced later at night for teens than it is for kids and adults. This can make it harder for teens to fall asleep early.” KidsHealth

Given the early start times of school, our teenagers can suffering from a significant sleep deficit over time.

With this understanding of teenage sleep patterns, there has been a push for later start times for highschools. Even pushing back the start time of schools by 25 minutes can make an impact on teenage productivity. Unfortunately for us, this movement hasn’t really taken place here. Here’s hoping the schools will make the change before my boys hit their teenage years and start highschool…


* Image courtesy of Stoonn /

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