How Sleep, Diet, and Screen Time Can Influence Sensory Processing and Regulation

While there are many things inside the classroom that you as teachers can influence in order to facilitate improved learning, there are also many things that you have no control over. The following are all variables that are difficult for teachers to influence directly within the classroom, but contribute to the teacher asking "why?" a certain behavior is happening. Knowledge of these variables may help to open up a conversation with caregivers in order to optimize the learning experience. Talking with students about the influence of these variables can be empowering as well. It is also important, as a teacher, for you to consider how your sleep patterns, diet, and screen time habits impact the way in which you со-regulate with students.

We recognize that all families do things differently. Every culture—and every household—has certain traditions, expectations, and ways of doing that will shape how a child develops and how a child is influenced by all of these external variables. We are not suggesting that there is a "right" or "wrong" way to navigate these areas. However, we do want to present what the research shows in order to help keep you better informed, help you approach students with empathy and understanding, and help guide discussions with caregivers.

There are also social justice concerns that may influence a student's sleep, diet, and use of screen time, including noise pollution, neighborhood violence, poor access to fruits and vegetables (e.g., food deserts), cost of healthy food, family work schedules, and unsafe outdoor play spaces, to name a few. You may also experience some of these social justice concerns yourself. Be aware that systemic racism may impact access to resources, interventions, and supports that students need.

Influence of Sleep

Sleep plays a critical role in maintaining balance in our body: restoration of brain cells, supporting brain plasticity, resting muscles and joints, and regulating our inner clock (i.e., circadian rhythm). According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children 3-5 years old typically require at least ten hours of sleep, while children 6-12 years old typically require at least nine hours of sleep.' Poor sleep negatively impacts almost every area of brain-body functioning and development. It creates stress not only for the child but also for those surrounding the child. Many symptoms of sleep- deprived children look like difficulty processing sensory input.

Consider a student who chronically sleeps poorly. Their tiredness may manifest by constantly jumping or skipping around in an attempt to stay awake. They may frequently "zone out" or daydream during class, and they may chew on their sweatshirt or nails to help focus on a task. They might be more reactive towards peers, and their frustration tolerance might be limited or they might give up easily. For this student, spinning in a circle could be alerting. Any stimulating sensory strategy to say "wake up, body!" is likely. Anything that tests an already short fuse of a student who is chronically sleeping poorly will lead to a "zero to sixty" response. This is not a behavior problem that deserves punishment, but rather a cry for help to regulate and get back into a state of balance. Until the student receives the amount of sleep their body requires this cycle of dysregulation will continue to occur. As a teacher, when you don't sleep well or are consistently not getting enough sleep, you may notice that you become easily irritable, feel more antsy when focusing on a lesson plan, or get increasingly agitated with students talking or touching your body.

Concomitantly, many children with SPD have difficulty regulating themselves when it is time to sleep.2 Sometimes the routine leading up to bedtime is stressful, hurried, and dysregulating, which impacts the quality of sleep. Sometimes the child is so overstimulated from the day that they can't settle to sleep. Or maybe the overstimulation from the day is so exhausting that the child wants to nap after school; then later that night they wake at 11 pm and can't fall back asleep. At other times the events of the day are so understimulating that the child's body remains essentially in sleep mode all day long. And sometimes a child simply wakes up dysregulated from a restless night of sleep or because of other stressors in the home.

Sleep is essentially an exercise in self-regulation. However, many children with SPD have a difficult time self-regulating because they do not yet have the strategies to do so. Therefore co-regulation with a caregiver, changing the sleep environment, and use of external sensory inputs surrounding the sleep process will be necessary to keep a child regulated in order to fall asleep.

Some sensory-based strategies caregivers can use to facilitate improved sleep include:

  • • Visual
  • • Use a nightlight
  • • Use a star projector nightlight
  • • Watch an LED fishtank toy
  • • Use blackout curtains
  • • Face the bed away from the window
  • • Use a sleep mask
  • • Auditory
  • • Use a sound machine
  • • Play calming music
  • • Wear noise-cancelling headphones
  • • Utilize the iLs DreamPad
  • • Vestibular
  • • Read books in a rocking chair
  • • Sing songs in a rocking chair
  • • Do yoga before bed
  • • Tactile
  • • Use lycra sheets
  • • Use a weighted blanket (research suggests 7-10% of child's body weight)
  • • Wear an oversized t-shirt
  • • Sleep naked
  • • Take a bath instead of a shower
  • • Shower or bathe in the morning instead of at night
  • • Proprioceptive
  • • Use a weighted blanket (research suggests 7-10% of child's body weight)
  • • Move the bed to a corner
  • • Sleep under or on top of a bean bag
  • • Use a body pillow
  • • Provide a body massage while reading books
  • • Oral-Motor
  • • Provide crunchy or chewy snacks
  • • Use a chew tool when reading books
  • • Keep a cup of water next to the bed
  • • Use an electric toothbrush

While all children are different in their sleep routine preferences, there are a few things we regularly recommend. You can share these ideas with caregivers. Reassure caregivers that change is hard, so it may be met with initial resistance. Encourage caregivers to involve their child as much as possible in making decisions about bedtime.

  • • Stop screen time two to three hours before bedtime. Screen time can interfere with the ability to fall asleep.3
  • • Eat dinner early—about 2V2 hours before bedtime. This will allow for digestion.
  • • Play hard for 30-45 minutes, about 1V2 hours before you start the quiet bedtime routine.
  • • Transition to the calming routine by dimming the lights and playing classical instrumental music.
  • • Brush teeth before doing any other bedtime activity. This is usually not a favorite for most kids, so doing it first will allow for the other activities to reregulate them.
  • • Take a warm bath with lavender oil. Showers can be very stimulating because each stream can feel like a pin prick.
  • • Read two to three books, sing two or three songs, then turn the lights off.

You may find that some of these sensory strategies and routines are also helpful for you to increase the quality and quantity of your sleep so that you are in a more regulated state that allows you to better со-regulate with students. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends seven to nine hours of sleep every night to promote optimal health in adults.4

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