Sleepless in Psych


Yesterday in AP Psych, I tried to illustrate the difference between “effortful” and “automatic” processing by asking a student what, if anything, he ate for breakfast.

Normally, that’s a pretty easy question. No one has to intentionally encode it. No flashcards required.

He looked at me, a little confused, and said, “I’m so tired, I don’t really know.”

That’s what happens when our students don’t get enough sleep.

And if they can’t remember breakfast, how do we expect them to retain complex new vocabulary, concepts, or equations?

Fortunately, my school district is joining the long list of schools moving high school start times back — next year, 1st hour will be at 8:35 instead of 7:25. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that later start times do result in more sleep — not just later bedtimes.

But we still have a big job to do in selling our students on the value of sleep. How often do we hear teenagers bragging about being up past midnight, whether they’re finishing a project or playing video games? How often we we hear them talk about sleep deprivation like it’s a competitive sport? “I’ve got no time to sleep!”

Precious few teenagers get the recommended 8-10 hours they need.

I don’t blame parents. When our sons were in high school, we couldn’t stay awake late enough to see when they went to bed, but I know they often got 5-6 hours at most. It’s not enough.

Last year, I decided my psych students should conduct their own inquiries into the value of sleep and determine whether their habits are a problem. They kept sleep diaries, recorded alertness stages during the day, and answered survey questions about their attitudes toward sleep.

Then, we used that data (from about 75 students) to explore the larger question: Do teenagers get enough sleep? That required them to do their own research — to find out what sleep is for and why they need so much of it.

The students discovered that nearly all of their peers are sleep-deprived — there were just a few outliers — and they produced posters and PSAs touting the value of sleep to others. Some of them were awesome; they targeted their peers’ sense of humor in a way that I never could.

One of the students told me afterward that she appreciated the assignment. “I learned that sleep can affect more than just school performance, which is why most high schoolers are encouraged to sleep,” she said. Her group emphasized the connection between sleeplessness and acne.

This weekend, I’ll be presenting the Teens & Sleep lesson at the National Council for the Social Studies national conference, and it’s been downloaded more than 100 times from my website,

I know it’s not going to change things overnight, but I hope by encouraging students to build their own understanding about sleep, through an open-ended inquiry process, we can begin to chip away at this problem. Any amount  of extra sleep will help.

My book, Beat Boredom, is now available for pre-order from Stenhouse.

Next week, I won’t be posting due to Thanksgiving. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.


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