George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Girl sound asleep at her desk, arms crossed across her books
I would like to follow you up the long stairway again & become the boat that would row you back carefully. (Margaret Atwood, "Variations on the Word Sleep")

I was a teenage insomniac. Except for a handful of times when I sleepwalked to the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter sandwich, bedtime meant boredom, then exasperation as my brain replayed scenes from the day: failed jump shots, unrequited crushes, perceived slights, and unsatisfactory hair.

At school, I zombied in and out of consciousness. One time I dozed in the middle of second period until the high school science instructor shouted, "Finley! Wake up! My monotone getting to you?" Mr. Smith shouldn't have taken my sleepiness personally, but I wish that one of my teachers had inquired about my sleep habits. It might have saved me from two decades of undiagnosed sleep apnea.

What the Studies Say

Because consciousness is a prerequisite for learning, academic performance suffers from sleep deprivation. Even when kids are awake, the condition impairs concentration and cognitive functions. Additional effects include depression, increased appetite and weight gain, accidental injuries, and susceptibility toward nicotine dependence, among other problems.

Based on Russell Foster's frequently-cited research showing that adolescents naturally tend to stay up later and sleep in longer, Mokkseaton High School, in the United Kingdom, changed its start time from 8:50 to 10:00AM, resulting in significant improvements in academics and attendance. When school start times were delayed as part of Finley Edwards' study of North Carolina middle-grades students, standardized test scores were raised, especially among students with less than average academic skills. One way to narrow the achievement gap, Edwards suggests, might be a policy of starting middle and high school later.

From a number of articles on the subject, I compiled a checklist of common factors that contribute to teens chronically sleeping in class:

  • Staying up too late (often attributed to games, TV, or social media)
  • Working the night shift
  • Suffering from health issues or sleep disorders: sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy
  • Being bored with the pace of class activities
  • Traumatizing parent-child relations or other troubling experiences
  • Being too hungry

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

Nine or more hours of sleep are sufficient for most adolescents, according to multiple authorities, while anything under eight hours is not enough. Only eight percent of teens report that they receive enough sleep (PDF). Even more at risk are adolescents who physically mature more quickly because of their inherently lower sleep drive (PDF). For more information about sleep drive and alertness, check out Harvard Medical School's short interactive tutorial on the subject.

Waking Them Up and Keeping Them Active

Here is one way to compassionately wake a student. Preoccupy the rest of the class with a think-pair-share, and while everyone is distracted, lightly touch the sleeper's arm. To help her stay awake, suggest she get a drink of water, stretch in the back of the room, or sit with her back against a cold wall.

When students start to space off, switch to an activity that requires movement.

  • Have students briefly engage in a role-play.
  • Use Jennifer Gonzales' inspired Chat Stations, in which students stand and discuss prompts located in different parts of the room. After a few minutes, rotate the small groups to the next station.
  • Try a new activity from Edutopia's Game-Based Learning: Resource Roundup.

Short energy breaks, or energizers, can enhance alertness and reduce stress. The list below features my favorites:

1. In the team Bubble Blow Challenge (PDF), groups work cooperatively to get as many bubbles as possible from point A to point B. The team bubble blower is the only group member prevented from moving from point A. After each round, teams are given 60 seconds to consider alternative tactics.

2. In Question Ball, students stand in a circle. When the facilitator bounce-passes a ball to someone, the receiver asks a peer a question. "Your house is burning and you can retrieve only one object. What do you carry to safety?" Then the ball is returned to the facilitator who passes it to someone in the circle who hasn't had a chance to ask or answer a question. This continues until everyone has spoken.

3. In What Is the Adverb? from 100 Ways to Energise Groups, a student volunteer is sent into the hall while the rest of the class agrees on an adverb, such as painfully, tensely, suspiciously, sadly, selfishly, etc. When the volunteer returns to the room, she commands peers to do various actions "in that way." Examples:

  • Distribute papers that way.
  • Simulate holding up a bank that way.
  • Greet a friend that way.
  • Scrutinize someone's shoe that way.

The round ends when the volunteer correctly identifies the adverb.

And If the Sleeping Continues?

Assuming you've a) had a conversation with the classroom sleeper about why she can't stay awake; b) notified the child's parents about which days and how often you've observed the problem; and c) that your lessons incorporate variety and movement; send these sleep hygiene routines to the caregiver if the problem persists. Meanwhile, make sure that your classroom (especially for those meeting earlier in the day) is well lighted to increase alertness, using natural light if possible. If you have any other suggestions, please post them in the comments section.

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heidirivas's picture

Yes I agree that if the student is still keep on sleeping on the class despite of many strategies you've been through, it would be better to talk on their parents. If what is the problem and the cause of his/her behavior. Well to be honest, sometimes I also fell asleep during class hours of so many reasons like doing things that should be done, like paper works and etc. And from this I could say that a teacher must be patient enough to control his/her anger regarding with that, they should know the story first before they act. Students still posses juvenile behavior, it is childish to sleep during class hours and it is very challenging on the part of a teacher to give their very best to awaken their sleeping audience.

Debbie's picture

It must be difficult for adolescents to get nine or more hours of sleep each night, especially in a community like mine where teens need to catch the bus around 6:20. No wonder kids are tired! The studies you refer to linking higher test scores and better attendance rates with later start times of high schools is interesting. I wonder if more districts will start to experiment with this.
The suggestions mentioned for dealing with sleepy teens was helpful. I think getting students out of their seats a few times during a lesson is beneficial, even for those who are not sleeping. I'm looking forward to trying the Chat Stations and Question Ball next year.

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

Your right Debbie but student must have their time-saving ways for them to have time for their studies. For example they can study at school before they go home so that at night they can sleep at early time. Am I right Debbie?

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Hy Lymarie,

There are some fun dance energizers on a site called GoNoodle. Hope that helps. -tf

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

That's a good point, Debbie. The situation is worse for students who have to get up earlier to take a bus.

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

Thank you Todd Finley. :)

Being a student I notice that some of the fun dance energizers I watched a while ago are being use by some of my instructors for us to be attentive and alert when he or she is discussing. I can use this fun dance energizers you offer Mr. Todd Finley in some our group reporting or presenting something that needs an eye breaker. I also enjoy watching it and I try some of it too. :)
You Mr. Finley can you share what are your own knowledge about the unique ways in giving a so called "energizer" before an educator start his or her lesson.

Richard Chiamulera's picture

This is a very interesting concept that is always being debated. One aspect that I question when it comes to the validity of information on students not receiving enough sleep is all of the factors that contribute. I say that because I know that even now as an adult, it is difficult to head to sleep at a reasonable time. Sometimes it may be as a result of work or my continuing education. However, other times it is because I simply choose to pursue other activities as opposed to going to sleep at an appropriate time. So when we look at data that states students aren't getting enough sleep, are we taking into account what is actually keeping them awake?

Outside of those questions, I'm constantly looking at ways that I can try to prevent classroom sleepers, but every year I have a new set of experiences.

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