Though there were a number of cardinal offenses when we were students, none—perhaps with the exception of cheating—was greater than to be caught sleeping in class. Now that we’re educators, we get it: It’s frustrating to find students napping through important lectures or in-class discussions. What’s making students so “tired?” Does it have to do with boredom, laziness, stress, health issues, all of the above?
Catching Z’s: Why are our students sleeping in class?
According to Russell Foster, a neuroscientist and director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at University of Oxford, sleeping in class actually has more to with natural fluctuations in “the biology of human sleep timing.” Let’s explain.
Forster’s research suggests that the biology of human sleep timing changes as we age. Once we hit puberty, bedtimes and waking times get later, a trend that continues until 19.5 years in women and 21 in men. Then it reverses. At 55 we wake at about the time we woke prior to puberty. On average this is two hours earlier than adolescents. This means that for a teenager, a 7 a.m. alarm call is the equivalent of a 5 a.m. start for people in their 50s.
Why does this happen?
Foster isn’t entirely sure, but the shifts do correspond to hormonal fluctuations that increase when we hit puberty and decline as we age. Of course, biology is only partially to blame. The proliferation of technology, cultural disregard for the importance of sleep and relaxed bedtime schedules only complicates things.
What do we do with this information?
A half decade ago, many who attended Foster’s conferences scoffed at his suggestion that administrators rethink school start times. More recently, however, educators have started to accept and structure the academic day around adolescent sleep patterns—and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
In the U.K., Mokkseaton High School instituted a 10 a.m. start time and found “an uptick in academic performance.” Studies of American students revealed similar results: academic performance and attendance improved; sleeping in class and self-reported depression declined.
Whether or not educators decide to push back start times, Foster does caution our disregard for the importance of sleep. Here are a few reasons our students should start taking sleep more seriously:
- Research has shown that blood-glucose regulation was greatly impaired in young men who slept only four hours on six consecutive nights, with their insulin levels comparable to the early stages of diabetes
- Long-term sleep deprivation might be an important factor in predisposing people to conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension
- Tiredness also increases the likelihood of taking up smoking.
If you are interested in learning more about Foster’s research on sleep, he has written a book called Sleep: A Very Short Introduction.