Time for sleep

Sleep does not discriminate. Everybody needs to sleep. It is so pivotal in our wellbeing and has such an impact on our day to day function that its relationship to teaching and learning cannot be ignored.

I listened to a podcast recently with Mark Healy, a senior leader and psychology teacher up in Scotland, in which he discussed the importance of sleep for both students and staff. There is an argument that without being fully rested and therefore being alert, awake and able to take on new ideas, there is little point in worrying about other factors important in teaching such as Cognitive Load Theory or Metacognition. Our working memory capacity will not be as large, we will not be able to process or retrieve information or strengthen memories as readily, and our decision making will be impaired. So maybe sleep is the real fundamental, both for allowing students to make the most of their time in school and for teachers who need to be able to get new ideas across.

There is no single reason but many competing theories as to why we sleep. Briefly, Restoration Theory says that we use sleep to repair ourselves physically and mentally; the Information Consolidation Theory posits that learning during the day is consolidated at a synaptic level during the night whilst sleeping; and Energy Conservation suggests that sleep’s primary function is to reduce energy demand and expenditure when it is least efficient to search for food.

What is clear (certainly to anyone who has ever cared for a young baby!) is that sleep deprivation does not make for a productive following day. Although as teachers we can rarely influence the amount of sleep our students are getting, understanding a little more about it may help us to see the bigger picture. It may also provide a catalyst for starting to discuss sleep with the teenagers we work with and start to help them understand why good sleep habits are so important. It is also vital that we are thinking about our own sleep health as teachers.

Sleep works differently in adolescents to adults and whilst we may not be able to change our policies or school day to mitigate this, it is important to be aware of. In humans the secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland serves as a cue for the biological clock and promotes the feeling of drowsiness. In adolescents, the secretion of melatonin is put back by about two hours compared to adults and this greatly influences their sleep cycles: this is called the circadian shift. This can have an effect similar to jet lag – we are expecting teenagers to wake up early and get to school in the week, but they tend to stay up and wake up much later at the weekend, putting them in a perpetual state of catch-up. It is worth considering what effect this could have on their working habits and how the amount of study we expect them to do is affected by this.

It is no surprise that sleep is also linked to anxiety. In a study by Monti and Monti (2013), children with Generalised Anxiety Disorders found it much more difficult to get to sleep, often lying awake for hours trying to fall asleep (known as sleep latency). This in turn heightened their anxiety, which exacerbated the problem. This is worth consideration in our current Covid-19 situation where levels of anxiety for both children and adults could be heightened already.

Teachers often have high workloads and need to remember how important it is to look after themselves, and this includes getting enough sleep. Mark Healy talks about the “Ten Commandments of Sleep Hygiene” which he shares with his staff:

  1. Try not to exercise too late in the day, try to slow the body down
  2. No naps after 3pm
  3. Have an alarm for stopping working in the evening and an alarm for bedtime
  4. Don’t have caffeine or nicotine after 5pm and do not use alcohol as a sedative
  5. Avoid large meals too late at night
  6. Avoid medicines that might delay or disrupt your sleep
  7. Try to find a routine to slow you down and stick to it, for example reading, walking the dog or watching a film, and ideally don’t work in the evening
  8. Keep your bedroom room cool, open a window
  9. Keep your bedroom gadget-free, or at least get rid of the blue light by changing to a softer yellow light setting, and don’t have your work emails on your personal phone
  10. Try to get exposure to the light during the day by getting outside and finding a “bright spot”
  11. Caffeine has a half-life of three to five hours, meaning that it will take that amount of time for half of the caffeine to disappear from your system.

Sleep is a complex topic there are lots of related factors and I have only scratched the surface here. For further information I would recommend the following:


Mark Healy’s presentation at #PLGaitherin’ in May 2020

“Why we sleep” – a book by Matthew Walker

Deb Friis

Deb is a maths teacher at Durrington High School. She is also a Maths Research Associate for Durrington Research School and Sussex Maths Hub Secondary Co-Lead and will be delivering our training on the EEF Guidelines for KS2 and 3 Maths.

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