Sleep an important piece of learning puzzle

Issue: Volume 103, Number 1

Posted: 25 January 2024
Reference #: 1HAep6

Students and teachers at a Nelson school are discovering how much a lack of sleep affects their lives and learning outcomes through a new programme they are helping to develop.

Time for an afternoon nap for rangatahi from Rebekah’s class.

Time for an afternoon nap for rangatahi from Rebekah’s class.

Broadgreen Intermediate had been working with technology and internet safety expert John Parsons around social media safety for tamariki and whānau, when a conversation about the importance of sleep came up.

“In the last five years, my work with families and keeping technology under control in the home has skyrocketed. I have been doing coaching online and we continually see children who are failing in school – one of the factors is sleep deprivation,” explains John.

With a strong interest in the interface between technology and dopamine, John has worked with government agencies and NZ Police delivering education to detect and reduce the risk of all online crime, and the ways people are manipulated online and offline.

In the past 15 years he has worked with families to help control their children’s technology use.

Domains of wellbeing

John says that sleep deprivation affects four key domains of wellbeing: movement, food, sleep and learning levels.

“I was working with a family with a seven-year-old child who went to bed at 8.30pm and lights were turned off at 10.30pm. From 8.30 to 10.30pm the child is on his device – it’s very common, by the way.

“The hippocampus has two primary functions – to receive information and then deposit it in long-term memory. When this child goes to bed at night, without enough sleep, there’s only half the time for the information to get into long-term memory. The next day he cannot recall what he has learned because it’s not in his brain,” he says.

John Parsons

John Parsons

Once the child’s sleep patterns returned to 12 hours a day, his energy levels returned, he was eating better food, learning levels came back up and extra maths coaching was no longer required.

Impacts of sleep deprivation

The Sleep Power: Win your day every day 10 session programme was developed by John over many years to help children and young people understand the impacts of sleep deprivation on their bodies.

Alongside John, Broadgreen Intermediate kaiako Rebekah Shepard created this unit of learning, specific for classroom use and then piloted this programme with her bilingual class. It includes a 10-session outline with key teaching points, learning intentions, curriculum links, printable resources, activities and further research opportunities.

Rebekah is heading into her 18th year of teaching and says that in the past five years, she and her colleagues have noticed a shift, particularly regarding tiredness, short attention spans and energy slumps during the day.

While she acknowledges there are other factors such as parents working full-time, and some rangatahi working outside school hours to help support their families, the realisation, about the impact of sleep deprivation was a wakeup call.

“What do we see? Students are just more tired. We’re seeing a lot more lateness, a lot more students sort of rolling into kura. They haven’t had breakfast and are not ready to start the day because they’ve just hopped out of bed after less than six hours sleep.

Engaging programme

Ākonga in Rebekah’s class were highly engaged in the programme which began with them filling in a diary and gathering data, along with establishing their prior knowledge about sleep.

By session four, they began to research the amount of sleep needed by role models such as athletes or celebrities; or if that’s not their interest, they look at sleep in the animal kingdom.

“I’ve got a lot of 13-year-old students who are sports mad. And when they found out that Steph Curry and LeBron James are getting 8-10 hours of sleep at night and a two-hour nap during the day, they started to listen!

“Through this research, they found out that they are 80 percent more likely to risk an injury playing sport, or that recovery time is way longer if you haven’t had sleep. There were a lot of ‘aha moments’ with those sporty students about the recovery time.

“Moments of understanding that they were actually capable in their learning and not ‘stupid’ arose as they realised how little sleep they were getting and how this impacted their ability to concentrate in class.”

Screen attachment

The programme then looks at what sleep does to the body and discusses screen time versus screen attachment.

John argues that screen time is almost impossible to manage, but teaching about screen attachment and what technology use displaces in terms of activities, social interactions and learning opportunities, can make a difference.

“Students have a right to knowledge which empowers them about what can shorten their lives,” says John.

Rebekah says it’s important that ākonga doing the programme are not made to feel ashamed about their device use.

“Every student comes from different values in their homes. One student might have a phone, one might not. One student is allowed gaming up till 4am, another is not allowed Snapchat yet. So, this is not a time of shame, or to beat ourselves up about how much we’re using, but an opportunity to unpack this.

Powerful te ao Māori perspective

With 95 percent of Rebekah’s ākonga being Māori, she says that bringing in a te ao Māori perspective was powerful. They discussed Te Whare Tapa Wha and the impact sleep deprivation has on the four walls of hauora – emotional, mental, physical and spiritual.

“About 60 percent of my teaching is done in reo Māori. A real thing that came through is the impact we have on other people around us. If we look at this through a te ao Māori lens, we are looking at the whānau. To be a part of a whānau is where we are most empowered, so if I’m not getting my sleep and I’m choosing not to, this is now detrimental to my whānau.”

Rebekah, her teacher colleagues and ākonga learned through Sleep Power that hauora for this age group should be prioritised and that sleep is a key part of that puzzle.

“We’ve always had physical activity and good food, we’re looking at vaping and all these real things that are happening, but sleep was never a part of that puzzle. We may have thought that sleep is a parents’ problem, but that then impacts your day,” concludes Rebekah. 

Broadgreen Intermediate kaiako Rebekah Shepard with students, Nardy and Milan.

Broadgreen Intermediate kaiako Rebekah Shepard with students, Nardy and Milan.

Kōrero about sleep

Zion, Tiahomairangi, Arvahli and Gauge had a kōrero with Rebekah about the sleep programme.

Tell me one key thing you have learned about sleep?

  • When I get more sleep, I’m going to be better at rugby because sleep helps my body to recover.
  • Sleep is good for my skin.
  • Sleep is really helpful for me to stay focused, because at kura I muck around a bit and maybe it’s because I’m tired. 

What did you think when you learned that using devices at night was affecting your sleep?

  • I guess I already knew that, but it was all good to know how they were making my sleep worse.
  • I learned that the smaller the screen the worse it is for my sleep, so I tried it and used the TV for YouTube instead of my phone.
  • I thought it was just Dad making me get off my phone but actually, he knew it was because using my phone in bed isn’t good for my sleep. 

Has knowing more about this topic changed your screen and sleep habits?

  • It definitely made me happier.
  • I got to kura on time so Whaea was happy about that.
  • Yeah, I’m now going to bed earlier before rugby because I want to play better. 

What difference has the course made for you so far?

  • I’m not sure but now I know when I have something big on, I need more sleep before. 
  • I can tell when I haven’t had enough sleep because I’m angrier. That means I need to get an early night.
    It definitely helps when I do that. 
  • It was pretty cool looking at my sleep and realising it’s my job to get better with it, I always just thought Mum was being too strict.

Teacher kōrero

The students were engaged with this topic and series of work from the start. They were interested in the links to statistics, which was handy as we focused our mathematics learning on statistics to line up. It made for rich discussions around the data and how we presented it.

I was blown away by how normal it was for my tauira to be gaming until 2am or later. Lying in bed on their phones was a consistent theme across my entire class.

Screen time and sleep

Chief education scientific advisor for the Ministry of Education, Professor Stuart McNaughton, says there are several steps in thinking about the relationships between screen use and sleep.Sleep

  • Sleep problems in childhood and adolescence are related to several social and emotional, physical, and cognitive problems.
  • Young people now have widespread access to, and use of, digital devices.
  • Consistent evidence across cultures and countries that the extent of screen time among children and adolescents is associated with delayed bedtime and shorter total sleep time.
  • There are individual differences in susceptibility to the effects, such as extent of self-control and experience (with devices and content).
  • It is still the case that apart from the extremes, it is the content that matters. But, Stuart says with increased time overall, the total amount of screen use is associated with sleep issues.
  • For young people and especially adolescents, there is a need to provide and support awareness, knowledge and strategies in ways that recognise the need for autonomy as well as collective responsibility.

He Uru Kahikatea: building young people’s resilience through media and information literacy and digital citizenship skills(external link)

For more information about the programme, contact John Parsons at or Rebekah Shepard at 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:34 am, 25 January 2024

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