Improve Student Performance through Exercise, Diet, and Sleep


We all know that the Northern Virginia area has a culture of putting pressure on kids to do well in school.  Students in this area receive so much information about what classes to take, where to go to college, how to study better, what information is the most important, what activities will help them get into the best college.   Often the approach taken to improve student performance is to work longer and study harder. Because of all this, many students become stressed, overworked, and run down.  They lose motivation and feel like they will never succeed, or they get to the point that they want to succeed so badly that they sacrifice basic things like sleep and healthy eating habits.

Although it most likely won’t be possible to lift all of the pressure surrounding academia off our kids’ shoulders, there are a lot of things we can do at home to help them learn to handle it in the best way possible.

Promote Regular Exercise:  Studies show that exercising before studying or completing work can increase a student’s focus and learning the same amount that a low dose of stimulant can.  Exercise also improves memory, resilience, and stress levels.  This can make a big difference if your child is up late at night trying to finish a long reading passage or math problem.  Even though your child will have to take time out of their day to accomplish it, they will be more efficient at completing their work when it’s time.  Even twenty minutes a day can make a difference!  If your child has a tutor or private music lessons, the best time to exercise is right beforehand.

Encourage Good Nutrition When I was a teacher, I saw some kids eating some horrible things on their way to class and during lunch (chips, candy, etc.) and would notice a difference in their performance.   Although most kids don’t do this, some have a tendency to skip meals or eat irregularly.  This can have a negative effect on attention span, especially if the kids are eating artificial sugars.  Of course, most parents know this and already try to get their kids to eat well.  It is frequently easier said than done.  A good way to at least help the situation is to put out a bowl of fruit in the morning before school in a location that’s easy to access.  If your child is picky about what type of fruit they will eat, try cutting up fruit and keeping it in baggies.  The natural sugars in the morning will help wake them up for those early classes.  Having little baggies of nuts for in between classes is also great.  The proteins help keep them alert, while the carb count remains low.  Also, if you pack lunch, try to keep it low on grains.  Binge-eating complex carbs can cause fuzziness and lethargy, especially in the early afternoon.
Emphasize the Importance of Sleep Although it may seem counterintuitive, much of learning actually occurs during sleep.  If it’s a toss-up between studying that extra page of chemistry and going to bed on time, sometimes it may be a better idea just to catch some Z’s.  I’ve heard a lot of parents tell me that their A/B student who is taking 6 AP classes is staying up all night trying to learn their material and becoming frustrated because they aren’t retaining it.  As with exercise, you are using up some time to sleep, but it will allow you to be much more efficient when you are learning.  Students need to prioritize tasks to get the most important done first.  Sleep should be towards the top of the priority list.  Ingrain this in your child’s mind early and they will develop good habits!

Promote Organizational Skills:  Kids are often praised for how smart they are.  Although this can make them feel good at the time, it doesn’t necessarily build skills in areas where they’re not naturally gifted, such as organization and time management.  Without organizational skills, students can waste a lot of time searching for assignments, not knowing what to prioritize, and becoming frustrated.  All of these things cut down on the amount of time they will have productively learning and completing work.  Having organizational skills in everyday life, such as keeping a good binder, planning out tasks in an agenda book, and knowing how to prioritize can help lower anxiety levels  (which get in the way of focusing), promote organized thinking (and therefore more efficient learning), and of course time management.  Make sure that you praise effort and organization at an early age in order to emphasize the importance of organization skills.  If your child isn’t always willing to take your suggestions, you may want to consider hiring an educational coach to help promote those important life skills.  Even if your child can get by without them now, there will be a point when the volume and complexity of schoolwork finally outweigh their natural abilities.

Although these things may seem rudimentary, it is really easy to forget them when your child is struggling.  Before thinking that your child just can’t handle their workload, go ahead and take a look at these areas to see what can be improved.