George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Wellness

How to Keep Classroom Sleepers Awake

If students regularly fall asleep in class, keep them awake and engaged with physical movement and mentally stimulating activities in a well-lit classroom.
May 12, 2015
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.

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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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Filed Under

  • Student Wellness
  • Classroom Management
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School