Teens often struggle to manage studying, sleeping, and their social life, and when given the choice, a little shut-eye is often sacrificed. But compromising sleep for studying can do more harm than good, according to a new study in the journal Child Development.
High school students who sacrificed sleep to hit the books had trouble understanding new material and struggled on tests and assignments the next day, researchers report.
"No one is suggesting that students shouldn't study," Andrew Fuligni, professor of psychiatry at the University of California—Los Angeles and the study's senior author, said in a statement. "But an adequate amount of sleep is also critical for academic success."
Researchers recruited high school students from three Los Angeles schools to record their sleep and study habits over a 14-day period during grades 9, 10, and 12. The 535 teens participating in the study represented a range of cultural and economic backgrounds.
The impact of a few missed hours of sleep is amplified by the fact the most high school students are already sleep deprived, the researchers noted.
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"Adolescents devote less time to sleep as they age, and when they sacrifice the precious little sleep they have for extra studying, it has negative consequences for their daily academic performance," the report states.
Parents can help their students avoid late-night cram sessions by developing consistent study routines and helping their teens stay on top of due dates and deadlines, says Natascha Santos, a certified school psychologist and behavioral therapist in New York.
"It's important for parents to be in the know," Santos says. "As long as they have an idea of the upcoming expectations or projects, because parents are the ultimate prompt."
These three tips can help parents promote healthy study habits with their teens as they head back to school:
1. Set a schedule: Studying should be part of your student's daily routine, not something he or she tries to cram in the night before a test, Santos says.
The researchers behind the report agree, advising students to parse out their study time over the course of the week, rather than letting due dates dictate their study time.
Preparing for tests ahead of time can reduce anxiety, and finishing assignments ahead of schedule can be rewarding for students, says Santos, who recommends that parents and students write due dates and major deadlines on a calendar or planner to serve as a visual reminder.
2. Eliminate distractions: Cell phones, Facebook, and TV can quickly interrupt a productive study session. Curb your teen's temptation to tune in, text, or update their status by shutting down any unnecessary electronics during scheduled study times.
"Especially with cell phones, it's like their third eye at this point," Santos says. "That's such a distraction."
Since students often need a computer to complete online assignments or type papers, Santos suggests parents pay attention and check in with their studious teens.
"It's pretty easy to gauge if they're going onto social media sites versus typing out an essay," she adds.
3. Break it up: Maintaining focus during a two-hour study session may be challenging, so know your teen's limits and divvy up study time accordingly, licensed psychotherapist Michelle Aycock writes in a column on the Savannah Morning Herald's website.
"Being aware of their attention span can help you structure their study time so that it will be successful," she writes.
Parents should also set milestones for large projects or important tests such as midterms or college entrance exams, Santos, the New York-based school psychologist, notes.
"Don't dump it all in one piece, but break it up into smaller tasks," she says. "Be proactive, so it doesn't come crashing down."
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