I'm Just Tired: Children's Sleep and the Socioeconomic Status Achievement Gap

I'm Just Tired: Children's Sleep and the Socioeconomic Status Achievement Gap
My 4-year-old son did not get much of a nap yesterday. No big deal, right. He's just turned 4 and many kids are dropping naps anyway around this time.


We went for a hike yesterday morning so he was tired. He fell asleep in the car and I made the mistake of trying to move him. He woke up and did not get a very restful nap.

Guess what happened this morning? He as cranky and did NOT want to go to preschool. We made it after much drama but I guess it goes to show he still needs a nap.

Now imagine a child experiencing this broken sleep...all the time. Imagine how well they will function during the day at school? This is just one often overlooked example of the effect of poverty on kids.

We all know sleep is important, especially for children. A recent study showed that missing just one hour of sleep can reduce a child's cognitive abilities the next day by almost 2 years. For example, a 5th grader who misses sleep the night before may perform like a 3rd grader the next day in school (reference from Dr. Michele Borba).

Recently researchers have begun to consider the relationship between insufficient sleep, family socioeconomic status (SES), and a child's academic performance. This is a new, interesting line of research.

Researchers have long studied the connection between SES and children's school performance. The theories for why this connection exists are many and varied--children of low SES typically have fewer resources so they may have less access to good schools, fewer books and toys.

Children from low SES homes are also more likely to have behavior problems, which may affect their school performance. Researchers theorize that this may be due to their parents experiencing a great deal of stress in their lives, which may compromise their ability to parent well.

But what about the connection between insufficient sleep and SES? Researchers are beginning to find that this relationship is common and statistically significant. Children from low-income homes are more likely to have sleep-disordered breathing, poor sleep quality, and shorter sleep times.

A recent longitudinal study found support for the idea that these differences in sleep patterns between families of varying SES may explain some of the variation seen in children's academic performance.

The study found that when sleep quality was high for children from both low-income and higher-income families, both groups of children performed similarly on cognitive tests. However, when sleep problems were present (which were more likely to be among low-income children), children from low-income families were more likely to perform poorly on cognitive tests.
So why does there seem to be this connection between low SES and poor sleep patterns among children? Researchers are still testing out the theories, but some ideas include:

- low-income families are typically larger so more room sharing and poor ventilation is more likely

- health problems like asthma are more common among low-income families. Similarly, children may not be receiving high-quality health care and thus these health problems may be compromising sleep quality

- low-income families are more likely to have inconsistent schedules or experience longer work hours, which may negatively affect children's sleep

Personally, I feel this is a much-needed area of new research that could reveal some very important issues. Sleep is so fundamental and crucial to our functioning as human beings (just ask any parent of a newborn), but we often take it for granted. For children, sleep is even more important and they are often not able to communicate that tiredness is the source of their lack of focus or crankiness.

Here are some great suggestions for parents and teachers to help children get enough sleep.

Buckhalt, J. (2011). Insufficient Sleep and the Socioeconomic Status Achievement Gap Child Development Perspectives, 5 (1), 59-65 DOI: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2010.00151.x

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