Sleep problems may impact kids’ relationships with teachers

(Reuters Health) - Sleep problems in younger children may be associated with higher student-teacher conflict, a small U.S. study suggests.

The role of sleep problems in children with behavior problems at school has long been explored, and many youngsters who come to doctors for sleep evaluation do so at the urging of a teacher or counselor, said Dr. Shalini Paruthi of the St. Luke’s Sleep Medicine and Research Center in Chesterfield, Missouri, who was not involved in the study.

But “the idea that sleep also impacts the student-teacher relationship is a new and intriguing concept,” she said in an email.

The current study, conducted in a primary school in the midwestern U.S., showed a statistically significant association with student-teacher conflict in younger, but not older, children.

As reported in Sleep Medicine, researchers analyzed responses from 175 students in grades one through six who answered an 18-item questionnaire about their sleep during the previous week, and twelve teachers who rated their interaction and closeness with the children.

For children up to about nine and a half years old, self-reported sleep problems were linked to greater student-teacher conflict even after accounting for mental health symptoms such as attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD), depression and anxiety.

“It kind of makes common sense that if kids are not sleeping well they are not going to do well in class socially as well as academically,” said Dr. Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study.

A growing body of research has shown that getting too little sleep in early childhood is linked to cognitive and behavioral problems years later.

Bedtime/nighttime behavior problems or daytime sleepiness were not specifically linked with student-teacher conflict in the current study. However, daytime sleepiness was tied to lower student-teacher closeness regardless of age and sex.

“We do not have the data to specifically explain why, but . . . children who are sleepy during the day may be more muted, less engaged and less likely to have the positive interactions with teachers,” study co-author Alex Holdaway of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio told Reuters Health by email.

Holdaway and co-author Stephen Becker acknowledge a number of study limitations, including that the findings are drawn from self-reported data from mainly Caucasian children.

Furthermore, the study can’t prove that sleep deficiencies result in greater student-teacher conflict and less closeness, or whether the reverse is true - that difficulties with teachers impact a student’s sleep, Holdaway said.

Rich agreed, noting in an email, “If there were conflict at school with their teacher - one of their most important relationships and certainly where they spend a majority of their waking hours - would that not affect sleep?”

The findings are preliminary, and it’s impossible to say with certainty that more sleep will improve student-teacher conflict, “but ensuring your child gets adequate sleep is never a bad place to start,” Holdaway said.

SOURCE: Sleep Medicine, online December 20, 2017.