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How ADHD, Sleep, and SAD Affect Your Students

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January 02, 2024


Symptoms, or coping mechanisms?

You don’t have to be a teacher for long (maybe 5 minutes?) before you encounter your first student with ADHD. ADHD is very prevalent. In fact, according to the CDC, between

5-11% of kids ages 4-11 have been diagnosed with ADHD.

Especially when you account for undiagnosed children, the odds are good that you have a couple of kids with attention issues in your class.

How Is ADHD Treated?

The great news is that ADHD is very treatable and medications are often fast-acting and work well. The bad news is that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for kids with ADHD. One med may work for one child and not for another. As kids grow and change the medications that used to work may no longer help them. Some families are unwilling to medicate their children and seek after alternative treatments, or sometimes no treatment at all. While the thought of an unmedicated child with ADHD may send chills up your teacher spine, new research is shedding light on alternatives for kids that actually work.

Of course, teachers can’t diagnose or treat any illness, after all, we aren’t doctors (though we may feel like nurses, parents, therapists and more at times.) Despite this, we do have an essential role in educating parents and families, so staying educated about new research and treatments is an integral part of our job.

Sleep and ADHD, Like a Bad Love Story

So, what is this new research and how does it apply in the classroom? Some researchers have found a link between sleep and ADHD. There is a strong correlation between struggling to get a good night’s sleep and being diagnosed with ADHD. Just because correlation is seen doesn’t mean you’ve found the cause of something, but the association, in this case, is strong enough that some researchers have started to wonder if maybe the sleep issues are at the root of some of the symptoms that are present in ADHD.

And really, it makes sense. Have you ever been around a young child who is overtired? First, they may be irritable and grouchy, a common trait in young and old when they are tired. After a while they start bouncing off the walls, displaying symptoms of hyperactivity, lack of focus, impulsivity, and other ADHD-like symptoms. It is an easy conclusion to make that maybe what’s really at the root of a child’s hyperactivity, lack of focus, impulsivity, and mood swings is lack of sleep, not ADHD. Researchers view the hyperactivity as a ‘coping method’ for exhaustion. While the research isn’t there yet to definitively prove this, it is an interesting theory that could have significant implications for future ADHD treatment.

Why Not Just Sleep More?

A logical conclusion would be that if lack of sleep leads to ADHD sleep symptoms, then kids need more sleep. It seems that there is more to the story than kids not catching enough z’s. Having structure, routine, and a regular bedtime can be highly valuable to kids with ADHD. Not only have these habits been proven valuable for students, but are vital for successful employment.

Researchers hypothesize that these kids have problems with their circadian rhythm (that built-in system that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to wake.) For example, in the study,

People diagnosed with ADHD were three times more likely to be ‘night owls’; naturally falling asleep much later than those around them.

(Yes, people can be classified as night owls in a study. It even has a medical name: delayed sleep chronotype. So, if you aren’t a morning person now you know why!)


ADHD medication US
Percent of Youth Aged 4-17 Years Taking Medication for ADHD by State: National Survey of Children’s Health (Source: CDC. 2017, February 13. Map-Overall Medication 2011 [digital image]. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/medicated.html)
Sunshine by State (Source: Roberts, Billy. 2008, October 20. Photovoltaic Solar Resource of the United States [digital image]. http://earthguide.ucsd.edu/eoc/special_topics/teach/sp_climate_change/p_solar_energy_resource.html)

Another link researchers found was between SAD and ADHD. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a form of depression that gets worse or is brought on during the winter months when daylight is a scarce commodity. In fact,

ADHD is diagnosed less in regions of the country with more sun exposure and more in regions that get less sunlight.

Turn on the Lights

Light therapy, commonly used to treat SAD, is showing great promise as a nonmedical therapy for ADHD. Children with ADHD sit under ultraviolet lights for about a ½ hour each morning. This light therapy helps their body regulate its own circadian rhythm. Melatonin supplements are also a promising natural treatment for children with ADHD.

Researchers have done some preliminary trials, and this treatment seems to be helping to at least reduce the severity of ADHD symptoms. Whether the ADHD causes the lack of sleep or a lack of sleep causes ADHD symptoms, helping regulate a child’s circadian rhythm and subsequently helping them to get more sleep can only help.

Teaching Students with ADHD

Although the treatments and underlying issues of ADHD are out of a teacher’s control, there are still things teachers can do to have a positive influence on their students with the condition. Staying up to date with research and maintaining good communication with parents is key, but focusing on things you can control, like using curricula proven to maintain students’ interest, can help both you and your students have a better class experience.

Amy Curletto has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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