Everyone, at one point or another, experienced school bullies. Some of us may even have been those bullies, although we don’t like to admit to it now. But it’s generally accepted that bullies are not sympathetic characters, and that their behavior is difficult to defend.
A new study from 341 Michigan elementary schoolchildren may, however, overturn some of the stereotypes of school bullies. According to Tara Parker-Pope, who wrote about the study for her New York Times “Well” blog, the problem of bullying may be better addressed, not by punishment and disciplinary action, but by “paying attention to some of the unique health issues associated with aggressive behavior.”
What are these health issues? One of them is sleep-deprivation. The children who had behavioral issues, which sometimes included bullying but also could include general classroom disruptiveness, were twice as likely as other children to have “symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing.” This means that the children whom parents and teachers identified as having issues with bullying or disruptiveness were probably not sleeping as well as children who were better behaved.
This, of course, is still just a correlation, and there is no proof that bullying and sleep deprivation are causally related. But there does seem to be evidence pointing in that direction. According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Louise O’Brien, “The hypothesis is that impaired sleep does affect areas of the brain. If that’s disrupted, then emotional regulation and decision-making capabilities are impaired.”
She added, “Our schools do push the importance of healthy eating and exercise, but this study highlights that good sleep is just as essential to a healthy lifestyle.”
One of the most important take-aways from this preliminary study is the importance of sleep for children and adolescents. Even as a college student, my academic work and overall happiness improved dramatically when I decided that I simply had no excuse to neglect getting seven or eight hours of sleep. And it certainly makes sense to me that bullies or disruptive children would be more irritable and aggressive if they weren’t sleeping as well. It’s too early to draw a conclusive connection between sleep deprivation and bullying, but this study is a reminder that if children and adolescents (as well as most people) aren’t sleeping enough, they can’t perform to their highest potential, either academically or socially.
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