A school for sleep


BOY, did I get a lot of sleep last night! I'll admit it: I'm boasting. Also: lying.

But isn't it odd to hear someone boast about how much sleep they got?

Alaina (who's making plans to be one of our teachers) pointed out to me last night that hardly anyone — at least in the high school and college years — boasts about getting healthy amounts of sleep. Instead, they boast of the exact opposite:

Student 1: "Jeez, I was up 'til 2 a.m. studying for my Psych final." Student 2: "Yeah? Well, I only got four hours of sleep, writing my English term paper." Student 3: "You think that's bad? I haven't slept for 72 hours, have virtually murdered my working memory, and am experiencing numerous visual and auditory hallucinations! In fact, I doubt I'm actually having this conversation right now."

All right: I'm exaggerating. But only a little.

A high school student of mine, who gets good grades at a prestigious public school, told me:

High schoolers are in a constant state of sleep deprivation — like, intense sleep deprivation. I’ve had minor hallucianations in class before. I have a major headache right now.

From talking to others who attend his school, I'd wager that he's toward the extreme end of the spectrum. But that end of the spectrum shouldn't exist.

Our school will make it easier for students to sleep well.


I'm new to this thinking, and don't have an excess of ideas. I welcome yours! Some possibilities that I've been playing with:

We'll begin at a reasonable time.

Our middle and high school, particularly, should begin later — perhaps at 9 a.m. Teens are biologically wired to stay up (and wake up) later. (No, really. I thought this was hippie-dippie psuedo-science until I saw intercultural research on circadian rhythms.)

Our school is pro-human nature. That means not actively working against a student's biology.

We'll explore naps.

A number of other cultures — I'm looking at you, Spain! — do mid-day naps. Sometimes I'm able to take a rest (though not an actual nap) during my post-lunch crash time. It's wonderful. I'm reloaded for the day.

So we'll try out rest periods, and see what works well for our students (and faculty). Of a piece with this:

We'll schedule well.

We won't plunk nuanced analytic classes (math, chemistry) into the tired periods: e.g. the late afternoon. Typically, the hardest intellectual work will be done in the morning classes.

(Or, at least, that's my hunch on this. If you have experience about what times of day work best for what types of learning, please share in the comments!)

We'll make kids tired.

Some kids are wired when they come home from school: not our school's!

We'll make them think hard, yes. But we'll also make them physically tired — we'll be running, jumping, climbing, and so on throughout the day.

During the day, this'll wake them up. At the end of the day, this'll put them to sleep. Ah, the paradoxical pleasures of exercise. (More on this in a later post!)

We'll teach sleep.

How to sleep well isn't at all obvious when one lives in a culture that celebrates caffeine, bright lights, and long hours. I struggled with insomnia for a few years, spending maybe about a thousand dollars on doctor visits and various medications, before realizing that it was a caffeine problem, pure and simple. I just had to cut coffee past noon, and 90% of the insomnia disappeared.

I didn't know anyone could be that sensitive to it, but, I was pretty dumb then!

Now I'm not. I was taught sleep.

This may seem, well, nosy: like we're venturing outside our proper realm of Reading, Writing, 'Rithmetic. A little too paternalistic, maybe?

Maybe. I agree that there needs to be a balance. But it's clear to me that, at present, most schools sit at the opposite extreme. Students are under-rested, and it's having bad effects across the board: in learning, health, and psychological well-being.

We care about all those things.

But even if we just concerned ourselves with intellectual pursuit, we'd still need to take sleep seriously. As John Medina summarizes in Brain Rules:

Sleep well, think well.

We're going to be asking a lot of our students: to focus, to remember, to control themselves, to think carefully and expansively, to expand their picture of the world.

Sleeping well undergirds all of these things. If we can help our community get sleep right, we can move further toward all our goals.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA