Lifestyle - by Sarah Jones

It's Hard to Learn with a Tired Mind

The Impact of Fatigue and Sleep Deprivation on Learning

A girl falling asleep with glasses falling off her head

When we're trying to learn something new, it can be difficult to feel like we're making progress. Sometimes things just won't click, no matter how hard you're trying, and no matter what you do you just can't seem to grasp the solution to a problem.

So, anything you can do to make this easier must be better, right? And the opposite also holds true. If there's something you're doing that's making learning that much harder, you'd stop it in an instant, right?

So, if I told you that being tired is probably making it impossible for your children to learn effectively, and for you to teach in a meaningful manner, I'd probably have your attention, yeah? Or that sleep deprivation is massively increasing across society, and it's got hugely detrimental effects not just when it comes to learning, but to everything else we do as well?

Well, it does. In fact, sleep has such a drastic effect on the way the mind works and how easily it absorbs and processes new information that it's fair to say it's almost worthless trying to learn when you're tired.

Here's why.

When You're Tired, You Can't Focus

This sounds so obvious, it's almost embarrassing saying it. But if it's so obvious, why do we insist on trying to learn past the point where we know that it’s worthwhile? I know I'm guilty of this because I'm stubborn enough that once I start something, I feel I must finish it.

But it's often better, especially for younger kids, to take a short break rather than insisting on finishing what you're working on. Even just 5 minutes can be rejuvenating, allowing you both to come back to what you're learning with renewed passion and vigor.

It's important to know the difference between lack of focus because of boredom or burnout, and lack of focus because of tiredness.

It's shown that when we're tired, our vigilance goes down. That's the technical term for how much attention we're paying to what's around us. You know as well as I do how easy it is to overlook something simple when you're tired, and when you're learning, especially technical subjects like science or math, it's all too easy to read something the wrong way.

When things start to get too much, try not to push on for one last problem. Instead, call an end to schooling for the day, or at least for the moment, and go and relax. The next time you come back to the subject, you're both going to appreciate it.

Sleep’s Key Role in Remembering Everything We Learn

There are 3 parts to that comprise the learning process:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Consolidation
  3. Recall

Student falling asleep during class


Acquisition is the actual learning part, where you sit down and absorb new information. Obviously, you're aware of this, because you've made the decision to homeschool and teach your children directly.


Recall is when your mind calls on what you've learned. If you've ever struggled to remember something, then it's the recall process you're having trouble with, and that's probably because there wasn't enough time spent on the second process, consolidation.


Consolidation happens when we sleep. Our minds sort through the memories of the day, going through everything we did and everything we learned, one by one. Things that seem useful are locked away in long term memory, ready to be accessed in the future, and things that are useless are discarded.

Deep REM Sleep

The thing is, this process happens when we're in a deep, REM sleep, and this can only happen after we've been asleep for a certain amount of time. So, if a person doesn't get enough deep sleep, or their sleep is interrupted or rough, then whatever happened that day won't go through the right consolidation process, and you won't be able to recall it correctly.

This means that sleep is just as important as making sure that you're learning the right thing! After all, would you go through all the trouble to learn something if you knew you were going to forget it all that night?

You've also got to consider that the more you go over something, the more deeply it's written into your long-term memory, as your mind can build on what it learned in the previous days. Our minds are smart, and if you keep doing something, your subconscious realizes that as this is something you're doing regularly and makes it far easier to recall it in the future.

So, if your children ever struggle with something, a really good way to learn it is little and often, with a little bit more built up every day. This will lay the foundations in their mind so when they finally grasp whatever it is you've been working on, they're never likely to forget it!

A Lack of Sleep Makes Us Far Less Likely to Want to Learn

Everyone's grouchy when they're tired, and we've all experienced the dubious pleasure of trying to make our kids do something they don't want to do.

So, convincing a child that it's in their best interests to learn when all they want to do is go to sleep? Impossible.

It goes far deeper than that, though.

The Chemistry of a Tired Brain

When we're tired, our brain chemistry actually changes. Hormones associated with stress and anxiety are far higher, putting us in permanent panic mode. This makes it almost impossible to focus, as well as incredibly combative and aggressive.

Not only that, but when you're sleep deprived, you're far more likely to react negatively to situations where you normally wouldn't. Even innocuous suggestions can be taken the wrong way. And this is no one's fault. It's literally our minds making us see and hear things differently to we normally would. Just because we missed out on a couple of hours in bed.

All of this adds up to making sitting down to learn whilst you're exhausted a daunting proposition. So, nip those late nights in the bud. Get an early night's sleep and make sure your children are getting to bed at the right time, too. You'll be able to focus, everyone will be happy, and it will be so much easier for everyone to retain what they're learning. It's win-win for everybody.

Last updated on July 21, 2017

About the author: Sarah Jones

Sarah realized a couple of years ago how severely sleep deprived she was. It was affecting her entire life, including her ability to learn and think. This led to her obsession with sleep. She continually tries to perfect it, and encourages others to do so at

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