Administered in: College of Education
Sleep is crucial for healthy childhood development. Yet nearly a third of U.S. elementary school children aged 6-11 experience suboptimal sleep health. This has direct and causal implications for learning including poorer academic achievement, challenging behavior, and executive function (EF) dysregulation. Work suggesting sleep’s educational importance during adolescence has led to recent policy changes like delaying school start times. Yet to date, there are three gaps in the literature which require further investigation. First, few studies have been designed to be causally-informative regarding the extent to which sleep is related to long-term learning difficulties including in longitudinal analyses of nationally representative cohorts of U.S. children. This has left unanswered questions regarding how sleep dynamically interrelates with learning throughout development. For instance, does suboptimal sleep health cause children to experience learning difficulties, or does a latent, stable trait affect both sleep health and learning? Second, whether the link between suboptimal sleep health and poorer achievement is mediated by behavior or EF is unclear. Suboptimal sleep health is thought to interfere with children’s learning through increased daytime sleepiness, which increases challenging behaviors and compromises EF skills necessary for successful learning. Yet to date, the direct and indirect links between suboptimal sleep health and achievement, EF, and behavior have not been explored in a mediational analysis. Third, vulnerable populations, including children with disabilities, children of color, and those from economically disadvantaged homes, are more likely to both experience learning difficulties and to experience suboptimal sleep health. Suboptimal sleep health may therefore be an under-recognized mechanism for why vulnerable populations disproportionately experience learning difficulties, but to date this has been not been directly investigated. Our project is among the first to assess these gaps through analysis of two nationally representative, longitudinal datasets that include rich and detailed data on both sleep health and learning: the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study- Kindergarten cohort of 2010-2011. Our aims are: 1) To better understand in what ways learning difficulties are influenced by suboptimal sleep health including through potential mediational or reciprocal relations; and 2) To ascertain whether a greater likelihood for suboptimal sleep health helps explain why vulnerable populations are more likely to experience learning difficulties. We will assess these aims through rigorous methods stratified by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and disability that will offer causally-informed evidence regarding whether sleep and learning dynamically interrelate during middle childhood (random-intercept cross-lagged panel modeling) and better estimation of the direct and indirect paths by which suboptimal sleep health influences learning difficulties (structural equation modeling). Our project thus has significant implications for the development of sleep-related interventions that promote school readiness and continued healthy development.