Healthy sleep habits are a vital life skill that is directly related to higher levels of function across a child’s day, and it is vitally important that we teach our students strategies that address this component of wellness. Research shows that sleep actively supports cognitive functioning and mental health in adolescence, and that there is a comorbidity of sleep disruption with nearly all psychiatric and developmental disorders. Sleep also affects self-regulation and mental health.
Moreover, if you think about sleep with respect to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s also critical to achieving higher levels of academic and cognitive success, making it eternally relevant in the classroom.
According to Johns Hopkins pediatrician Michael Crocetti, teens need 9 to 9½ hours of sleep per night—about an hour more than 10-year-old kids—to the point that an early start to school can be detrimental. Yet the teens I work with often struggle with going to sleep early enough during the school week. Some have anxiety, others struggle to relax and turn their brains off, and still others have nightmares or fear of the dark.
Here are exercises that can mitigate issues that might interfere with healthy sleep patterns among teenagers that I share with my occupational therapy clients.
4 Ways to Help Students Get Better Sleep
1. Keeping a mental journal: Not all journals are written on paper or on a device. You can suggest that students create one in their mind, where they can “write” or sketch thoughts that are bothering them and that may be keeping them awake. Have them create one as they get ready to go to sleep, envisioning the cover of the journal: What color is it, and what color are the pages? Are they using a pen or a pencil, or maybe a crayon, marker, or colored pencil? They can draw or write anything that may be keeping them awake, distracted, or upset, or that might wake them up later, and then close the cover of the imaginary journal when they’re done.
This is a variation of the Worry Box strategy, where the child takes control over anything making them feel anxious and does something tangible with it to improve regulation.
2. Using blankets: Suggest that students snuggle up under a blanket—they can wrap it around themselves tightly, like a burrito, but with their head sticking out. If they need help, they can ask a parent or guardian. They may even want a second blanket on top. They could instead use a coat or sweatshirt. Weight and compression activate the parasympathetic nervous system and decrease heart rate and breathing rate, and provide the body with information of where it is in space.
This is an adaptation of weighted blankets, which use pressure therapy to create a sense of calm.
3. Picturing their happy place: Tell students to close their eyes and imagine themselves in the happiest, calmest place they can think of. This is a real space—maybe they have visited it before, maybe they hope to go there one day. They should think about the sensory details of the place: What does it look like? What does it feel like? What do they hear and smell or even taste? Where are they in this special place? What are they doing, or are they simply being?
4. Imagining a peaceful place: A related exercise is to have students close their eyes and breathe slowly, imagining that the sound of their breath is taking them to a secret, magical place. Next they should stretch out their arms and imagine floating, surrounded by twinkling stars; a shooting star passes by. They should picture a welcoming tunnel with swirling purple, blue, and green, and then swim into it, feeling warm and cozy, as it gently pushes them onto a white fluffy cloud. They sink into the cloud, feeling cuddled and light, and realize that their cloud is slowly sinking, stopping at a bubbling brook surrounded by flowers. When the clouds on the horizon clear, they should picture a silver-and-gold castle, with steps made out of gems sprouting out of the ground in front of them. Tell them to take a step, feeling the cool jewels under their bare feet, and make their way to the castle. The old wooden doors open with a soft creak, and they cautiously step inside, into a room with walls of royal blue and a golden table in its center.
Tell them to picture a note on the table: “Welcome to the Castle of Calm and Peace. Close your eyes. Picture in your mind all of the hopes and dreams that you have for yourself. Do you want to be confident? Then be confident. Do you want to be in control? Then don’t just wish it, make it so.”
When they feel ready, they should open their eyes, reminding themselves of this place and of the dreams they made for themselves.
You get the idea: Students use their imagination to create the details and narrative for whatever place of calm and peace works for them. It’s a variation on guided imagery, a type of meditation that has been shown to improve sleep.
Students I’ve worked with have used these strategies in both their daily and nightly routines, and they share them with their family members, which bolsters their ability to work on self-regulation. Also, many of these strategies work throughout the school day during times of physical and emotional dysregulation.