January 27, 2016

Overtired? How caffeine and sleep deprivation interfere with learning

Stressed-out teens often turn to caffeine or the occasional all-nighter to achieve an extra boost or accomplish their goals. Unsurprisingly, among those same children and adolescents, rates of caffeine use and sleep deprivation have risen drastically, often alongside heightened stress levels. The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSP) reports that “caffeine intake among children and adolescents has increased by 70% in the last 30 years.” Meanwhile, the National Sleep Foundation has found that “more than 87 percent of high school students in the United States get far less than the recommended eight to 10 hours.” What’s worse is that both caffeine and sleep deprivation can exacerbate stress symptoms, like anxiety, fatigue, and attention deficits. Accordingly, caffeine and sleep both have significant repercussions in the classroom, where compromised brain function and development can have crucial and long-term effects on learning.

Your Student’s Brain on Caffeine

Caffeine is the most popular neurostimulant used world-wide, primarily because it can keep people awake and alert for longer than their natural sleep cycles allow. Caffeine works by preventing adenosine from binding to receptors in the brain. Adenosine triggers drowsiness and is designed to gradually prepare the body for sleep over the course of the day. But, when caffeine blocks adenosine from binding, the brain and body experience a jolt.


In small doses, caffeine has been shown to have positive effects on only some aspects of adult cognition. With the right amount of caffeine, adults can experience improved focus and some increases in working memory function. Among children, “the overall physiological and psychological implications of caffeine…have not been adequately investigated and are poorly understood” (NCSF). However, testing has shown that the benefits adults receive from caffeine are not often replicated among child and adolescent populations.

 Instead, the developing brain has the “potential to be modified by caffeine,” especially in regions responsible for decision-making, retention of visual memorieslanguage comprehension, and emotion association. These modifications can lead to improper brain development and can negatively impact learning abilities, particularly with respect to executive function skills like impulse control and memory processing.  

Caffeine can also compromise students’ “readiness” to learn, making them jittery, anxious, unable to focus, and unable to get adequate sleep. With limited energy or attention, student’s working memory function plummets, along with their ability to engage in sustained periods of effective working. The result? Students become unable to hold and manipulate ideas in their mind’s eye, struggle to complete work thoroughly, rush through assignments, forget integral details, and make frequent mistakes that never get revised.

Your Student’s Brain without Sleep

Sleep is incredibly crucial when it comes to students’ focus, morale, perception, judgement, and accurate brain function. However, teens are getting less and less sleep, which generates ongoing sleep debts and leads to deficits in their overall ability to learn. Nanci Yuan, the director of Stanford Children’s Health Sleep Center, notes that, while both adults and teens in achievement-focused nations are becoming more sleep deprived, “the problem is most acute among teens,” whose schedules often force them to wake up earlier and stay up later than their younger counterparts. As such, Yuan’s colleague William Dement, founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, argues that “high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” and, as a result of students’ fatigue, “nobody performs at the level they could perform.”  

Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has widespread and severe consequences, including, but not limited to, “an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, [and] depression.” Extreme sleep deprivation can even mimic the symptoms of disorders like Schizophrenia, causing auditory or visual hallucinations, paranoia, and delusional thinking. Just one of these symptoms, even the milder ones, could deprive your child of his optimal ability to learn. However, the problem not only manifests in your child’s waking life, but can also change the way he sleeps and, subsequently, the way he learns.

Sleep specialists explain negative symptoms as direct results of disruption in natural sleep cycles. When forced out of bed too soon, teens often miss “rapid eye movement” (REM), the most important and restorative stage of sleep. As a result, the body may adapt to shortened sleeping times by changing “the normal sleep cycle progression the next time we doze off.” In order to “catch up” on one missed cycle, other sleep stages may be shortened or skipped to compensate, perpetuating a vicious cycle of incomplete sleeping patterns.

When your child misses a stage of sleep, he actually misses an opportunity to learn. Scientists have hypothesized that “sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.” They cite REM and Short-Wave Sleep (SWS) as the two stages most involved with memory processes. REM sleep encodes emotion-based declarative memory (memory of facts) and procedural memory (memory of “how to” processes). Meanwhile, SWS “plays a significant role in [non-emotional] declarative memory” and visual learning. So, without sleep, your child may be actively forgetting instead of learning.

The Caffeine-Insomnia Cycle

Needless to say, these two problems among teens go hand-in-hand. When your child is tired, he reaches for caffeine to help him get through the day. Caffeine then acts as a stimulant and keeps him awake at night, disrupting his already disjointed sleeping patterns. With less sleep, he relies on more caffeine, and with more caffeine he will sleep less soundly. The cycle goes on and on, and your child’s learning and overall health suffers.

To break the cycle, many sleep specialists recommend enforcing a sleep routine, including consistent sleeping times and a reduction or complete elimination of caffeine usage. However, enforcing a new and regimented routine is not easy, especially while battling fatigue, jitters, and other stressors. Your child’s executive function tutor can help him to develop an appropriate schedule for his regular responsibilities that prioritizes adequate sleep. With the right support, in time, your child can break the trend and rest easy again.