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Healthy bodies, healthy minds: a holistic approach to effective learning

Positive habits for good learning; sleep patterns, nutrition and use of digital devices in the home

It is critical to the growth and education of a child that they develop positive life and study habits that facilitate their ongoing learning throughout adolescence. While 95% of brain development has occurred by five years of age, the “rational thinking” part of the brain continues to develop throughout adolescent years and is not fully developed until early adult years. For children, adolescents and young adults to be efficient learners, they require healthy eating patterns, moderated use of technological devices and a good night’s sleep, If the sleep cycle is cut short, the student’s learning performance suffers.

Unfortunately, the good work of students and teachers during the day can be undone through poor sleep patterns. Even if teachers work hard on explaining new material and students pay close attention to these new tasks, learning is often negated through deprivation of REM sleep. REM is essential for the preservation of long-term memory. Without adequate sleep, over-worked neurons not longer coordinate information and we lose our ability to receive new information or access previously learned information.

Ten or more hours of sleep is recommended for children and around eight to ten hours of sleep is recommended for teenagers. Students regularly in bed by 10 pm show less depression and better coping mechanisms.

As such, it is best to avoid the use of digital media late in the evening. The light emitted from the screens of electronic media can interfere with sleep by suppressing melatonin production which keeps the brain alert when it should be settling towards sleep.

A teenager’s circadian rhythm is different to that of a child or an adult due to their hormonal development. They tend to stay up later and are alert later in the evening and, subsequently, like to sleep in longer in the morning. This is a natural part of their development but unfortunately the world does not accommodate these habits particularly well. Therefore, regular habits need to be developed and adhered to as much as possible. This may require the removal of digital devices such as mobiles from the bedroom or switching off the television an hour before bed.

If possible, the completion of homework and other study each evening should not be conducted in a bedroom but in a quiet though public part of the household. The added bonus of conducting homework out of bedrooms is that the bedroom is then a place of rest and relaxation, a place associated with sleep, rather than schoolwork.

Good sleep and nutrition are also linked. Students who are tired are likely to eat more. The temptation to eat foods high in sugar is greater when tired and this raises blood sugar levels. Higher blood sugar levels are closely related to poor sleep because it disrupts natural sleeping patterns.

A healthy diet positively influences good learning. Poor diet results in loss of important vitamins and minerals necessary for a strong immune system, good memory, physical and mental health. Low iron levels can cause fatigue and poor concentration meaning study takes longer and is less effective. Iron is needed to deliver oxygen to the tissues of the body including the brain. The more oxygen in the brain the easier it is to learn.

As such, exercise is an important mechanism for ensuring good learning. Recent research by Dr Richard Telford makes clear the link between improving physical fitness and improving NAPLAN results in primary school-age children. Exercise boosts brain power by providing additional oxygen and nutrients to the brain through improved cardio-vascular systems. The fitter you are, the faster your brain waves fire for quick thinking.

It is important as parents and teachers to take a broad view of the development of a child, through adolescence into adulthood. So many of the factors mentioned above are linked to each other and need to be addressed both singularly and holistically for best effect.

Allan Shaw
Principal and chief executive
The Knox School, Wantirna South.

Telford, R. D. et al. 2012. Physical Education, Obesity, and Academic Achievement: A 2-Year Longitudinal Investigation of Australian Elementary School Children. American Journal of Public Health. February, Vol 102, No. 2


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