My Students Need More Sleep. And So Do I.

Sleep Deprivation: The New Normal

We are chronically underslept. From the advent of the light bulb to the omnipresence of screens, we’ve moved from “sun down” to “lights out” to “sleep mode.” Now matter what you call it, we’re getting less and less sleep. It’s easy to direct teens to turn off their devices and get more zzz's. But are we taking our own advice?

“Drowsy” Doesn’t Quite Capture It

The Sleep Foundation says teenagers ages 14 to 17 need between eight to ten hours of sleep, yet as a classroom educator, I know this is unrealistic even for my sixth graders. One can’t help but wonder what role exhaustion plays in our students’ academic performance, on the field, on stage, during high-stakes tests, or even when driving home from school? Moreover, how often are ADHD and other behavioral disorders misidentified due to lack of sleep? This study by the American Association of Sleep Medicine found that each additional hour of sleep in college freshmen “lowered the odds of scoring in the clinically significant range of emotional disturbance and ADHD by 25 percent and 34 percent, respectively.” And that’s college students!

If you search online for “TED Talk Sleep,” ten hours of informative videos are at your fingertips. There is no shortage of research underscoring that we need more sleep. So what’s the problem? Why are we still awake? And how can we help our students if we can’t even help ourselves?

Practicing What I Preach

Let me be clear: I need a dose of my own medicine. I struggle with falling asleep, instead laying in bed and scrolling through various feeds. I tell myself that watching something on Netflix will make me sleepier (it doesn’t), or that reading a book on my phone instead of a paperback is the same (it’s not). I can’t stand in front of my classroom and preach sleep practices if I’m not practicing them myself.

So here’s some of the steps I’m taking:

  • Exhaustion: Why am I not sleepy? Perhaps because I have sedentary days where I sit, sit, and sit some more. Evolutionarily speaking, we spent much more time as an active, survivalist culture than the drive-thru lives we live now. I recently took a two-week trip where I walked upwards of 12,000 steps per day, and slept like a cherub each night. I can’t replicate that exactly—I don’t live in Barcelona—but I can take the stairs, walk to the store, park further from the door, or go for a jog.
  • Night Shift: My phone is set to a warmer tone at night. Not only is it kinder on my eyes, it’s a noticeable change that kicks in at 10pm. It gives me pause as to whether or not I should put the phone away now.
  • Tea Time: Lately, I’ve been drinking a mug of hot (decaf) tea before bed. It’s a warm bath in my mouth. Whatever works, right?
  • Grace: Where I live has a significant homeless population. If we want to talk about being chronically sleep deprived, think about constantly having uncertain sleeping conditions. Think about being underslept for months or even years. In addition to other, more immediate challenges they face, sleeplessness is a pervasive, constant struggle.

It’s also important to note that not all sleep choices are behavioral. The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the study of a gene that affects our circadian rhythm . Simply put, some night owls naturally fall asleep and wake up later. Their options? Besides simply allowing their body to sleep when it wants to—a privileged choice among those without families or traditional work schedules—sleep assistive medicine is often the only possible route.

Students’ Sleep Numbers

In my math class this year, I’d like to assign a project where students read an article on sleep research and make sense of the numbers. “Only 52% of freshmen reported getting 8 hours of sleep or more.” What does that mean? What is 52% of our class? What are the numbers here, and what story are they telling?

More classroom ideas:

  • Open a lesson with questions: How much sleep do you get at night? How consistent is your bedtime? When you “get in bed,” are you “going to sleep”? How do you wind down? Do you notice a difference the next day when you haven’t slept much?
  • Have students keep a data chart on their sleep, and analyze the numbers as a class.
  • Read articles on sleep performance—including this announcement from the Federal Aviation Association and this newsela.com article on a Seattle school that adjusted its start time to accommodate teens’ need for sleep—and ask students whether these articles swayed their opinions on sleep.
  • Host a classroom debate: To what jobs is sleep data particularly significant? Doctors? Pilots? Childcare Professionals? Do you believe that, if given a later school start-time, students would use the time to sleep? If not, what should change to incentivize sleep? 
  • Have groups of students design “Public Service Announcements” to spread their conclusions to the rest of the student body. This might involve a school-wide assembly, a poster for tips to get to bed early, or a commercial on our school’s website.

If you can’t tell, I believe that sleep is one of the great keys to unlocking a future of less aggression and more empathy. Big dreams, right? Now I’m off to bed.