Teaching Sleep

World Sleep Day 2020 occurs on Friday March 13th and is the 13th annual celebration of sleep and raising awareness of the health and societal value of getting sufficient sleep. Sleep medicine professionals, researchers and teachers alike face the same beliefs that sleep is not important enough in personal health and well-being to be a priority. I know that at my school, a lack of sleep is sometimes seen as a badge of honor, and for that reason we spend two class periods teaching our students about sleep. This blog is an example of the types of activities that we might do with our sophomores.

Finding out where my students are in terms of sleep.

I’m lucky to work at a school in which we conduct our own YRBS survey. The image below comes from my YRBS presentation at #SHAPETampa and shares the question that we ask students, and the corresponding results from our 2016 survey.

YRBS - TAMPA.jpgAnalyzing a whopping 360,000 teenagers, a team led by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge found that 40 percent of teens slept less than seven hours a night in 2015.

Nearly 75% of my students report getting an average of 7 hours of sleep or less.

My students want to know how much sleep they really need. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children aged 6–12 years should regularly sleep 9–12 hours per night and teenagers aged 13–18 years should sleep 8–10 hours per night. Using YRBS data, personalized data, immediately hooks my students, and also shows many of them that they are not alone when it comes to lacking in sufficient rest.

If you don’t have access to YRBS data, a simple activity is to ask your students to write on a piece of paper the number of hours that they slept last night and then ask them to arrange themselves in order in terms of sleep.

This tweet is six years old and my students sleep patterns have not improved.

Sharing the value of sleep.

We share with students the importance of sleep, the role that it plays on health and I specifically like to tie it in with performance – wether that be in sports, on the stage, or in the classroom. If I can present any of my health content in terms of how it can lead to students becoming a better version of themselves, I find that they are more engaged. In fact, my essential question for the semester is “What does it mean to be a healthy Trevian?” (The Trevian is our school mascot).

My go-to source of expertise is Dr. Matthew Walker, the author of ‘Why We Sleep‘ which was the subject of a #slowchathealth book club and also my book of the year for 2018. We watch this short video followed by a lively discussion prompted by students recognizing some of their own symptoms of sleep deprivation.

We discuss sleep bulimia,  “purging” sleep during the weekdays and then “bingeing” on the weekends. We point out that we can’t “bank” sleep before addressing the role that sleep plays in terms of learning and memory, both before and after learning new material. We want our students (and teachers and parents) to understand that sleep is critical to memory consolidation. Without sufficient sleep, we create a system that perpetuates the illusion of learning and my aim is to encourage students to NOT pull ‘all-nighters’ before a big test.


For an advocacy project (NHES Standard 8) one of my students came up with the number 26. She worked out that as a student athlete, by the time she had fulfilled all of her necessary daily tasks, including school, chores, eating, homework and extra curricular activities AND tried to squeeze in the recommended 9+ hours of sleep, she was being asked to fit 26 hours into 24. Something had to give…..and sleep was the easiest to forego.

Making sleep non-negotiable

In the words of Dr Matthew Walker, “No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!’ We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grow up]. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.” In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.”

We want our students to value sleep so much that they see it as non-negotiable. They need to push back when negative influences try and keep them awake, they should advocate for less homework and they should be proud of striving for more sleep.

Getting more sleep

I want my students to become familiar with the idea of ‘sleep hygiene’ and be comfortable using that terminology.

sleep hygiene.jpeg

When we look at practices that promote sleep don’t forget that you will have some ‘experts’ in your classroom. Remember that task where you asked students to stand in line order dependent upon how much sleep they got? Two great questions are to ask the sleep deprived what keeps them awake, and then ask their peers at the opposite end of the line how is it that they got more sleep than the average student? Students sharing their tips for success will probably cover most of the suggested strategies in this list.

  • You must set aside 8+ hours for sleep. This is non-negotiable. Try a sleep calculator if you need help with this.
  • Consistency is crucial. Go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on weekends.
  • Keep it cool. A room temperature of 68 degrees is optimal. Hot baths before bed help.
  • Darkness. Don’t you always sleep better in a hotel with blackout curtains? Plus, turn off of screens before bedtime to increase melatonin released.
  • No caffeine in the afternoon, and avoid alcohol.
  • If you haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes, get up and read. You want your bed to be associated with sleep, not feelings of wakefulness, or checking your phone, or doing homework, or watching Netflix!

My own personal tips include using the Calm app for their sleep stories and sleep-promoting music. As I have said before ALL teachers, wherever you are in the world, have free access to the premium features of the Calm app. There is NO excuse for you not to have this app).

Sleep is a great example of a content area that can be applied to a number of NHES standards. I have had students analyze the internal and external influences affecting their sleep, students setting goals to improve their sleep, and students advocating for greater awareness of the value of sleep to their peers.


There are so many possible blogs posts that could be written about sleep but this one serves to share what we do with our own students. If you are looking for further resources, as I mentioned above, ‘Why We Sleep’ by Dr. Matthew Walker is an absolute must-read.

Other resources to check out include the following:

Five Tips for Better Sleep

TED Talk: Sleep is your superpower by Matthew Walker

Site: CDC’s Tips For Better Sleep

sleepfoundation.org, healthysleep.med.harvard.edu, and sleepeducation.org

Downloadable: Calm guidebook to help you sleep

Podcast: The Science of Success: Everything You Know About Sleep is Wrong with Dr. Matthew Walker

Podcast: The Kevin Rose Show: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams with Dr. Matthew Walker

App: Calm. Awesome app incorporating sleep stories, sleep sounds and meditations. I use the desktop version for a daily morning meditation before school starts.

Scholarly Rap: One of Andy Horne’s earlier, and catchiest scholarly raps was the Sleep Rap.

Social media: @sleepfoundation, @_worldsleep, @TheSleepCouncil, @AASMorg

Hashtags: #YourDayBeginsWithSleep, #sleepbetter, #worldsleepday, #healthysleepchat

Check out a sleep blog post that one of my sophomores wrote for #slowchathealth.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Sleep

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