Many special and general education students of all ages and achievement levels don’t get enough sleep. They suffer from sleep deprivation. They routinely get far less than the roughly eight to 10 hours of sleep they need.

The long-term consequences of sleep deprivation put them at serious risk for obesity, diabetes, accidents, heart disease, and premature death.

In school, at home, and with friends, the consequences are immediate. After less than a week of going to bed late and waking early, major cognitive and behavioral problems emerge.

Dr. Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, a neuroscientist whose professional life has focused on the study of sleep, makes this abundantly clear in his book, "Why We Sleep":

"A lack of sleep, even moderate amounts, degrades every mental faculty necessary to obtain valid information... This includes the loss of accurate memory recall, emotional instability that prevents logical thought, and even basic verbal comprehension. Worse still, sleep deprivation increases deviant behavior and causes higher rates of lying and dishonesty. Short of coma, sleep deprivation places an individual into the least useful brain state for the purpose of credible intelligence gathering: a disordered mind from which false confessions will flourish—which, of course, could be the intent of some captors."

Many sleep-deprived students don’t suffer from sleep disorders like apnea or insomnia.

Instead, they suffer from their decision, their intentional decision not to get the healing and rejuvenating sleep they could willingly get. Moreover, many of them opt for sleep deprivation despite their ability to list several of its debilitating consequences.

This raises two critical questions about their decisions:

Why do they opt for sleep deprivation?

How can we increase the likelihood that they’ll routinely opt for sufficient sleep?

Improving Sleep

Whatever your child’s age, it’s important that you know the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) sleep-hygiene tips so you and your child can use them as necessary, in ways that incorporate his (or her) values, habits, goals, and personality.

Typically, these tips and the way you approach them are key to success. Below is a moderately edited bevy of NIH tips.

If you decide to encourage your child to use them, start gradually, with two or three tips, adding new ones as needed.

Encourage your child to:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day — even on weekends. Though highly important, many parents and teens disregard this.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but not later than 2-3 hours before bedtime. Exercising near bedtime raises core body temperature, which interferes with sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine. The stimulating effects of caffeine in coffee, colas, certain teas, and chocolate can take as long as eight hours to wear off fully. Nicotine is also a stimulant.
  • Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. Large meals can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. Drinks create the urge to urinate, forcing visits to the bathroom.
  • Avoid medicines that delay or disrupt sleep, if possible.
  • Avoid naps after three in the afternoon. Though naps can boost brain power, late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night. To minimize this problem, keep naps to under an hour. (Some experts recommend 20 minutes.)
  • Relax before bed and take time to unwind. Engaging in relaxing activities before bed, such as reading or listening to calming music, should become part of a bedtime ritual.
  • Take a hot bath before bed. Hot baths drop core body temperature, which induces sleep and relaxation.
  • Create and maintain a good sleeping environment, one without anything in the bedroom that might interfere with sleep, such as noises, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or a TV, phone, or computer. Just one of these can thwart sleep.
  • Avoid the blue light emitted by phones and computers. It profoundly upsets sleep. Blue light exposure should end two hours before sleep. Special anti-blue light glasses can reduce but not fully eliminate the disruptive effects of blue light.
  • Keep the bedroom temperature on the cool side. For some people, 67 degrees Fahrenheit is just right. It helps them fall asleep quickly.
  • Get the right sunlight exposure. Daylight is key to regulating daily sleep patterns. Commonly, at least 30 minutes a day is recommended.
  • Avoid lying awake in bed. After 20 minutes of lying awake, it’s best to get out of bed to initiate a relaxing, preselected activity until sleep calls. Here, it’s important to pre-plan to know what to do and how to do it. Possibilities include meditation, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), reading, and listening to relaxing music.

If your child continues to have trouble sleeping or constantly feels tired, groggy, or poorly rested after eight to 10 hours of sleep, he may have a sleep disorder.

This requires the assistance of physicians who are highly knowledgeable about sleep disorders.

Influencing Behavior

Though some of these guidelines may be familiar to sleep-deprived students and relatively easy to carry out, they’ll only work if students want them to. If they don’t, parents will need to involve themselves in ways that encourage sleep rather than inciting conflict and resentment.

Your foundation of influence begins with a strong positive relationship with your child, a relationship characterized by your:

  • Paraphrasing of his comments so he knows that you understand and respect his views and his beliefs, even if you disagree with them.
  • Behaving in ways that show you have his best interest at heart.
  • Avoiding tendencies to preach, criticize, or force him to adhere to the NIH tips.
  • Offering well-earned feedback that emphasizes his effort, persistence, and use of NIH’s sleep-hygiene tips, starting with the smallest signs of good effort persistence, and adherence to an NIH tip.
  • Modeling NIH’s sleep-hygiene tips, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time, seven days a week.

To a large extent, your child’s willingness to adopt healthier sleep habits depends on his desire to please you because he values your relationship and wants to please you. It also depends on his understanding of your reasons for wanting him to develop new sleep habits.

Holding a soft, supportive, and factual conversation in which you discuss your reasons and his views about his sleep can go a long way toward creating an ally. It might also plant a seed that sprouts by itself.

In a highly readable and authoritative article in The New York Times, Dr. David DeSteno of Northeastern University offers several ways for people to develop good relationships and keep their resolutions, ways that don’t depend on the fallacy of willpower.

But why is it a mistake to depend on willpower, our old standby, our favorite method of dieting?

Willpower is a weak, ineffective, and mentally-taxing strategy to fight temptations that quickly exhaust people, robs them of vitality, produces poor decisions, and dissipates as it tends to achieve little but disappointment and regret. Dieting makes clear that willpower fails far more frequently than it succeeds.

To steer clear of this formula for regret, DeSteno strongly encourages people to use the enormous [but often ignored] power of social relationships.

Below are several of DeSteno’s critical points, edited to help you help your child improve his sleep habits. These points view influence building as a natural product of strong, positive, and genuine, relationships.

  • For parents to develop such relationships with their children, they need “to be fair, honest, generous, diligent and loyal. They would have had to be perceived as good partners. In other words, they would have had to behave morally.”
  • “What underlies these moral traits is the ability to put something else ahead of your own immediate desires and interests — to exercise self-control. Working hard to keep up your end of a deal or helping another person by giving time, money, food or a shoulder to cry on all require a willingness to sacrifice some resources.”
  • By helping your child develop "pride, gratitude, and compassion," you’re spurring cooperation.

Beginning the Process

As you begin the process of helping your child improve his sleep habits, do all that’s needed to create or strengthen a strong, positive relationship. Sacrificing a relationship doesn’t make sense. It’s harmful.

Simultaneously, follow this paradoxical statement: "Go slow to go fast." In other words, begin small and let your child pick the one, two, or three NIH tips he wants to start with. As he shows progress, have him add another.

Don’t overwhelm him or let him overwhelm himself. Go slow, make changes gradually, almost inchmeal, based on his outlook, cooperation, and progress.

In addition to "Go slow to go fast," follow the psychology inherent in EARSS (yes, EARSS).

Make it Easy for your child to succeed, make the situation Attractive to him, express the short and long-term goals of quality sleep as Relevant to his needs as he sees them, and surround him with Social Support that he values.

Depending on your situation, two of the Easiest NIH tips to follow are sunlight exposure in the morning and a cool bedroom of 67 degrees Fahrenheit in the evening. For Social Support you might listen attentively to his concerns about school.

Sometimes, all that’s needed for children to feel fully supported is listening to them attentively and paraphrasing their comments in ways that show you’re listening to understand, not to challenge.

If properly implemented, the tips and strategies in this article have a good chance of working. But even if you implement them impeccably, they might not. If so, or if you feel overwhelmed, I strongly recommend that you get professional help to improve the situation.

If your child resists changing his sleep habits — "I won’t. I don’t want to." — engaging an expert in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) might prove remarkably helpful. If you suspect a medical problem, it’s important to have him seen by a physician well-versed in sleep disorders.

My bias says that it’s best to get a comprehensive physical before addressing serious sleep problems.


Some investments don’t make sense. Some make indisputably great sense.

Giving careful consideration to Professor Matthew Walker’s previous quote about the debilitating consequences of sleep deprivation and the stacks of research supporting his assertions, one thing is obvious: Ensuring that your child routinely gets high-quality sleep makes indisputably great sense.

By now, I hope the bottom line is clear and convincing. If your child suffers from sleep deprivation and you think Professor Walker is right, invest now, not a year from now.