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Want students to learn? Help them get more sleep and exercise

By Team ISTE 1/12/2017

The connection between health and learning is nothing new. Digital health and wellness make up one of the nine elements of digital citizenship, which is a major tenet of the ISTE Standards. But getting enough exercise and sleep in our technology- and media-driven society continues to be a challenge for students as well as their teachers and parents.

With the beginning of a new year, people everywhere are resolving to get more exercise and better sleep. We obviously know these two markers of good health are important. Yet in our schools we ask our children to show up early and sit still for hours on end, sometimes without PE or recess.

And it doesn’t get much better when they go home. Most kids spend their evenings online, watching TV, playing video games and messaging their friends late into the night, all while flooding their brains with sleep-killing blue light.

This is not just bad for their health, says Alex Thornton of RTSG Neuroscience Consultants. It’s also interfering greatly with their ability to learn.

“Attention and memory consolidation are big parts of the learning process,” explained Thornton, who was a geography and history teacher for seven years. “Exercise promotes attention and brain growth. And … memory is consolidated during sleep.”

Although technology plays a large role in the widespread lack of exercise and sleep, it can also, paradoxically, offer solutions. Here are just a few ideas, ranging from low- to high-tech, that Thornton says educators can use to keep their students in the optimal learning zone:

Take a brain break

Want to improve your students’ moods while heightening their attention for up to an hour? All you have to do is stop your lesson for a few minutes so they can move their bodies. Try Tabata-style intervals with 20-second bouts of jumping, lunging and running in place followed by 10-second rest periods. “It lets kids with ADHD look like kids without ADHD,” Thornton said.

Give them heart-rate goals

A fast-pumping heart gets more blood to the brain and increases a child’s fitness level, but only if they’re hitting 60 percent of their maximum heart rate, and every child has a different max. Thornton recommends that kids wear heart rate monitors so they can work on reaching their personal fitness goals. “Gone are the days when the people finishing first score 100 percent and the last people who are unfit score 0,” he said. “Now we’re just worried about you working against you. We’re equaling the playing field.” Polar offers grants to teachers to help outfit classrooms with heart rate and fitness tracking devices.

Minimize blue light and monitor sleep cycles

TVs, computers and smartphones emit light on the blue end of the spectrum, which wakes our brains up. Add to that the teen and preteen’s biological proclivity to stay up late — and to message their friends constantly — and you’ve got a perfect storm for insomnia. Thornton uses a light-, sleep- and activity-tracking watch to monitor his own sleep cycles, but there are plenty of free apps that track sleep and movement. To change blue light to a sleep-friendly amber glow, iPhones now come with Nightshift built in, and you can install Flux for free on kids’ computers and devices.

Watch Thornton’s ISTE 2016 EdTekTalk to learn more about the connection between health and education and what teachers can do to prime their students’ brains for learning.

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